Last night, during a conversation with friends about the families of people convicted of terrible crimes (it was a wide ranging conversation), a semi-legal question arose to which none of us knew the answer.
Meet Jeff. Jeff is in his 40s, a husband and father of two. Jeff is convicted in a court of law of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The details of the crime are not important, except for these things:
Jeff has never confessed to the murder, and in fact has maintained his innocence from the moment he was arrested. There are no eyewitnesses. Whether or not Jeff is factually guilty or innocent is, for the purposes of this hypothetical, unknowable.
That said, the circumstantial evidence is compelling. Jeff and the victim had recently engaged in a loud and public argument that nearly became violent; the murder appeared to have been committed by a person of Jeff’s approximate height and build; Jeff’s DNA was found at the murder scene (the victim’s apartment); and Jeff is unable to establish any kind of alibi for the night in question.
Jeff goes to prison. Around a month later, there is a development. A man named Smith, recently arrested for a string of murders in a nearby city, has confessed during his interrogation to the murder of Jeff’s victim! Sure enough, investigators are able to find Smith’s DNA at the crime scene. Smith is similar in size and build to Jeff, and his confession is detailed enough to be quite convincing. Jeff’s conviction is overturned, and he is released from prison and returns to his family.
Three years pass, during which Jeff’s wife Nancy is tragically killed in a car accident. Smith, meanwhile, dies in prison by his own hand - but not before turning over a fascinating bit of information. It seems that Smith had never even met the man Jeff was initially convicted of killing, let alone killed him. Nancy, who was convinced of Jeff’s innocence but unable to prove it, contacted Smith through the latter’s family shortly after his initial arrest. She convinced Smith to take the blame for the murder in exchange for considerations paid anonymously to Smith’s family. She also fabricated the DNA evidence.
In short, all of the exculpatory evidence that resulted in the overturning of Jeff’s initial conviction has proven to be entirely falsified. Nancy and Smith are obviously guilty of a whole host of crimes, but neither of them is around to face any consequences for it. Jeff had no idea about any of this - he thought Smith’s surprise confession was just a stroke of incredible good fortune.
So here’s the question: what happens to Jeff? Does he go back to prison? Is he free and clear? Can he be retried?
I am looking for both a factual answer from someone who knows the law, and for opinions of the rest of the world on what the answer to the question should be.