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Heather Elvis murder case: Prosecutors face challenge to convict without a body

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It is fast approaching the three-month threshold in the Heather Elvis missing person/homicide investigation. The 20-year-old went missing on Dec. 18 and her body has yet to be found, even though authorities have arrested and charged Tammy and Sidney Moorer with her kidnapping and her murder. Details in the case are at a minimum, with the Horry County police and various other agencies involved keeping information close to the vest. But a murder trial conducted without the evidence of the actual body is somewhat more difficult to manage, not to mention securing a conviction, than a case where specialists have had time to study the victim's remains. So just how difficult is it?

WPDE in Florence reported March 7 that with the more recent case regarding Angie Pipkin, a woman who went missing in January, there were now two cases in Horry County, S. C., which appear to center around a murder where the body is missing and may not become available by the time the case goes to trial. Such murder cases are a challenge for prosecutors, Horry County Solicitor Greg Hembree told WPDE, but there is a way of trying the cases so that they usually end in a conviction.

Hembree said that in cases where no body can be presented as evidence of the actual murder believed to have taken place, the prosecutor must convince the jury that someone has been killed. This is accomplished by showing that an individual's life has been disrupted.

Proven that a life has been disrupted can be done several ways. A prosecutor can present phone records, work records, school records, bank records, and even Facebook page update records to show that normal activity in a particular individual's life has altered.

Hembree explained: "So the things that they normally do, the people they normally see, the places they normally go, leading up to that moment when they disappear, they just dropped off the planet, and then through circumstantial evidence you show that their pattern's been upset."

An example in the Heather Elvis case was the lack of traffic on her cell phone, the lack of interaction with friends and family, and, just a couple days after the last record of contact, her not showing up for work.

Sometimes prosecutors will offer some sort of deal with the accused, like a lighter sentence -- or retract the threat of the death penalty -- in exchange for information on the location of the body, but this is where care must be taken in the bargaining. One must still achieve satisfactory justice in exchange for the information given, because a too light sentencing bargain could see a killer imprisoned for a far shorter time. In these cases, extenuating circumstances might come into play, such as if the killing was of a heinous or horrific nature.

The Angie Pipkin case could very well fit into a situation where recovery of the body might be secondary to ensuring that the accused, Randy Gale Robinson, is at least placed behind bars for life. According to the arrest warrant served against him (per WPDE), not only did he "strike" Pipkin with "malice aforethought," killing her, but he also dismembered her body and disposed of the remains in a Darlington County body of water.

Setting up the disruption of life scenario to help prove a case where a body has yet to be recovered also is helpful in dealing with a defense that points out that an absence of the individual does not necessarily mean death and could very well mean that the individual simply decided to disappear themselves or vanish. They could be a person that just doesn't want to be found. But proving that an individual wants to disappear is extremely difficult, especially if the prosecution builds up aspects of the missing person -- the individual believed to have been murdered -- that provides a reasonable assumption that they were intending to continue living their lives as they had been and had situations and events they were looking forward to. People generally do not disappear without saying something to someone, having someone take care of a pet or house-watch, providing a friend with contact numbers or a forwarding address.

But in the end, getting the best kind of justice with the circumstances one has to work with is paramount, Hembree noted.

Both the Moorers and Robinson were charged with first-degree murder and obstruction of justice. The Moorers are also charged with kidnapping and two counts each for indecent exposure.

Heather Elvis is believed to have disappeared from the Peachtree Landing area in Socastee.

Angie Pipkin was last seen on Jan. 16 when her grandfather dropped her off at an IGA grocery store in Aynor.

The trial for the Moorers is set for June 27. No trial date has been set for Randy Robinson.

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