In a hearing last week in Boone County Circuit Court, Chief Prosecutor Dan Knight made a bold declaration: He said he’s going to prove Joseph Elledge killed his wife in the former MU student’s upcoming trial on child abuse charges.
Elledge, 24, faces two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count of abuse or neglect of a child in connection with bruising found on the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, according to previous Missourian reporting. The child is in equal custody of her maternal and paternal grandparents.
Elledge is the primary suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Mengqi Ji Elledge, 28, whom he reported missing in October. He was arrested on the child abuse charges Oct. 25.
“We’re going to prove he killed his wife in this trial,” Knight said Monday in a motion hearing to decide on a change of venue for jury selection.
However, Mengqi Ji Elledge’s body has not been found, and Elledge has not been charged for her presumed death.
Prosecuting a murder without a body is not unheard of, but it brings extra challenges to the state, which has to meet the burden of proof.
MU Associate Professor of Law Ben Trachtenberg specializes in criminal law and criminal procedure. He said one of the elements of any homicide is to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person has been killed.
Without a body or an outright confession, that becomes much more difficult.
Anders Walker, a professor of law at Saint Louis University who also focuses on criminal law and criminal procedure, said prosecutors don’t need a body to try a murder case. But the jury can’t be left with an alternate explanation for what happened.
Trachtenberg believes Knight may use this trial about child abuse as a proxy case to get information about Mengqi Ji Elledge’s disappearance.
“It is not unheard of for prosecutors to take an opportunity when they have people under oath to get evidence about things they’re interested in,” he said.
There’s two ways to do that, according to Trachtenberg. One is that Knight could be hoping to obtain evidence for potential future charges through cross-examination.
“The other may be to just tell the story he thinks deserves to be told,” he said.
But Trachtenberg said prosecutors have to be careful about bringing up charges they don’t have evidence to prove in a trial. There are also potential ethical issues with asking questions that don’t relate to the charges being tried, which in this case, are related to suspected child abuse.
However, if the child endangerment was related to the disappearance of his wife, then it might be fair to bring it up, he said.
An additional count of endangering the welfare of a child was brought against Elledge on grand jury indictment in December. Knight argued that Elledge separated the couple’s daughter from her mother, causing “a substantial risk to the life or body or health” of the child, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Walker said that if Elledge killed his wife, he separated her from their daughter, though Walker has never heard of murdering a child’s parent being cited as child abuse.
Knight himself acknowledged that the argument is unusual.
The defense moved to have the third count, one of the charges of endangering the welfare of a child, dismissed, which was taken under advisement by Judge J. Hasbrouck Jacobs in a hearing Monday.
On Thursday, Jacobs denied the motion to dismiss the charge, according to online court records.
As for Knight’s in-court declaration that he plans to prove Elledge is guilty, Walker thinks he may be trying to get Elledge to plead guilty to the child abuse charges. But the prosecutor may also be fishing for information.
“What they may be trying to do is shake out some information, scaring him,” Walker said. “They may not have enough to get him on murder, but they may use this trial to try and get him to reveal something.”
Walker said that if Knight plans to bring up the question of murder, the prosecution must be able to make a real connection to the charge of child abuse.
“It’s kind of like a fishing expedition to get him to say something about the murder,” Walker said.
If Walker was in Knight’s position, he said he’d let Elledge go despite the risk.
“If they’ve got nothing, they can’t keep him in jail indefinitely,” he said. “If he did it, and he’s running around out there, then he might give himself away.”
The Columbia Police Department has been searching in vain for Mengqi Ji Elledge’s body since October.
The Columbia Police Department “will continue its efforts to locate Mengqi Ji Elledge in the area of the Lamine River,” spokesperson Brittany Hilderbrand wrote in an email Friday. “There are no specific times or dates when operations may take place and some operations may occur on private property. Investigators continue to evaluate leads to determine when and by what means a search of the area may entail.”
Jacobs also approved in the Monday hearing to move jury selection for the trial to another county, though the trial will still be held in Boone County.
Elledge was scheduled for a pre-trial hearing Monday, but it was rescheduled for a future date on late Friday afternoon, according to online court documents.