Myth-Busting Hollywood’s Legal Thrillers: Double Jeopardy Edition
Most of us are familiar with the Double Jeopardy clause – probably not because we’ve recently sat down with the Bill of Rights, but probably because we remember a 1999 Ashley Judd movie by that title, in which a woman (Libby) was framed for her husband’s murder, and because she had already been tried, sentenced and served time in prison for the crime, she couldn’t be re-prosecuted for finding and actually killing him thereafter.
As usual, Hollywood wasn’t as concerned with providing accurate information as it was with making and marketing a blockbuster thriller. So, here’s a quick Myth Busters breakdown of the movie versus the law in Minnesota.
Premise: In the movie, one of Libby’s fellow prisoners tells her about the Double Jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment, and how since the state already thinks she killed her husband, she can walk up to him in a public place, in the middle of the day, and shoot him with tons of witnesses around and she can’t be charged or convicted for the crime.
Legal Fact: Double Jeopardy does come from the Fifth Amendment, and reads: “”[no person shall] be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”. The purpose behind it was to prevent prosecutorial harassment of defendants who were acquitted for a crime and to help uphold the right to a speedy trial by not clogging the court systems with cases that had already been tried. The Fifth Amendment initially only applied to federal court cases, but through the doctrine of incorporation contained in the Fourteenth Amendment, it now applies in all state court cases as well, according to a famous US Supreme Court Case entitled Benton v. Maryland.
There are actually three types of protection offered by the Double Jeopardy clause: First, an individual cannot be retried for the same crime after an acquittal; second, an individual cannot be retried for the same crime after a conviction; and third, an individual cannot be punished twice for the same crime. This last protection was discussed in a Minnesota Appellate Court decision issued this last September, in which the defendant appealed a sentence and the court found that he could not be punished for both the main offense and for a lesser included offense that arose out of the same behavioral incident. You can read that court opinion at:
Double Jeopardy is sometimes considered a legal technicality, because it is an absolute defense that doesn’t address whether the defendant committed the alleged crime or not. There is a great US Supreme Court case entitled Fong Foo v. US, in which the Court found that someone previously acquitted for the charged crime could not be retried for the same crime even if the trial court made errors in the original trial because a final judgment was entered in the case. Double Jeopardy must “attach” in a case in order for the defendant to be protected by it. Double Jeopardy attaches in a jury trial case as soon as the jury and alternates are sworn in, and it attaches in a court trial case as soon as the first evidence is submitted or heard.
You can read the whole Fong Foo decision at:
Fiction: The main problem with the movie was the basis for the chase – that once Libby found her husband she could kill him without repercussion because she had already been tried for that crime. The reality is, a charged crime is a set of specific facts, like “Miss Scarlet, in the Dining Room, with the Knife, on October 31, 2009.” If any of those facts are substantially changed, the law views the new set of facts as a separate and different crime, and thus Double Jeopardy does not apply. So, for Libby to have been protected, she would have had to commit the murder in the manner it was alleged and on the same or very similar date that it was initially alleged – not six years later after plotting in a women’s prison.
Hollywood Ending: In the movie, Libby ends up killing her husband out of self defense, so the “story” ends happily enough, with she and her young son reunited, the villainous husband actually deceased, and Libby’s name being cleared. However, she still did serve six years in prison for the first false conviction, and self defense can be a difficult affirmative defense to mount and win at trial.
Have a favorite movie that deals with legal concepts and want to know which parts are fact and which parts are fiction? Post a comment!