Legal Hypothetical about Double (Triple?) Jeopardy

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

IANAL. Does Smith leave behind any proof of what he says Nancy convinced him to do? Can the financial considerations he says she paid be traced in any way? Also, I know there’s something in law called a “dying declaration”, but does that include cases of suicide?

Let us say “yes;” there is detailed and convincing concrete evidence of Nancy’s actions.

I am not a lawyer, but I do know that certain forms of shenanigans mean that you weren’t really in jeopardy. Like, if you bribe the judge at your trial and the judge finds you not guilty. Then it all comes out. You can be charged again for the same crime and it isn’t double jeopardy because you were never in jeopardy in the first place.

Not sure if the manufactured evidence and perjury in Jeff’s case would ping the “not really in jeopardy” meter.

IANAL but to answer this I think we need the details about what “conviction is overturned” means in this particular case. I do not know enough about the legal system to enumerate the options but, for example, a conviction could be overturned on appeal due to a procedural error on the part of the courts, or the person could be exonerated (as in Crown Heights), and I’m guessing there are other options. The specific path for overturning the conviction would play some role in whether he could be retried. For example, this briefing talks about cases where “…the respondent was convicted of a crime and sentenced to a prison term; the original conviction was set aside in a post-conviction proceeding for constitutional error several years later, and, on retrial, the respondent was again convicted and sentenced.”

The case you describe does not sound like constitutional error but I think we need to know this detail to say what would happen legally.

Agreed. I could see procedurally the following happen:

  1. Jeff’s attorney moves for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. His motion is granted.
  2. Jeff is returned to county jail to await trial.
  3. The State, seeing the new evidence moves to dismiss the charges WITHOUT prejudice.
  4. The motion is granted and Jeff goes home.

Under that scenario, he could be retried. Under other procedural scenarios a retrial would be barred. The problem is that at that point in time, both Jeff and his attorney would be so happy, and convinced that these charges would never return that neither would pay attention to the procedural mechanism.

And I’m not sure such an oversight would be malpractice for the attorney (although it is poor practice) because the likelihood of such a reversal of fortunate has probably never happened in the history of English common law.

What form did the DNA evidence against Jeff take?

On reflection, maybe that is a violation of

Because what “should” happen IMO is different from what would happen.

He should be retried, if his exoneration meant something other than “a finding that the defendant is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”. He probably wouldn’t - I doubt if a DA is going to retry someone in that situation.

IANAL, but I expect that once you are exonerated, you’re done.


Jeff could be tried again, but the highlighted section will be a stumbling block. How could you prove this? Unless Smith an airtight alibi, he still had opportunity. How could Nancy have fabricated DNA evidence?

And just because Nancy paid Smith to take the fall doesn’t mean Smith didn’t actually do it.

I would think that if nobody can alibi Smith, his confession alone muddies the water enough so that a DA might be unlikely to retry Jeff.