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On October 15, 2009, Richard and Mayumi Heene called 911 in a panic. Their son Falcon had gone missing, as had a large metallic balloon housed in their backyard. Local and federal authorities conducted a highly publicized rescue effort for the UFO, but when the balloon was recovered, it was found empty. The Heenes eventually admitted that the incident was a hoax and a publicity stunt.
This case examines the discretion of local prosecutors at the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office, who were faced with tough decisions about charges to bring against the parents and plea bargaining strategies. Students are asked to weigh the interests of various parties—the District Attorney, the defendants and their children, the law enforcement agencies who expended resources on a bogus rescue—and also to arrive at a result that the students themselves consider legally defensible and just.
The case materials are drawn from actual events but supplemented by fictional memos that supply students with assignments and additional information. Part 1 of the case provides an overview of the facts and the questions faced by local law enforcement, as well as the applicable statutory law. Part 2 probes further into the various interests to be weighed, including the collateral implications of prosecutorial strategies (e.g., the mother’s immigration status, which may be affected depending on the charges brought; custody of the couple’s children). Part 3 introduces students to the ethical dimensions of the prosecutorial role through a law review article. Finally, instructors can provide students with Part 4, a brief description of the actual outcome of the case for further discussion.
Criminal law, District Attorney’s Office, hoaxes, parental responsibility
Event Year Begin: 2009
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