Brow Beat

What Charges Would the Monterey Five From Big Little Lies Face? We Asked the Monterey County D.A.’s Office.

Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley in a still from Big Little Lies.
A-list criminals.
HBO

Big little spoilers for Big Little Lies follow!

Sunday’s Big Little Lies finale ended with the Monterey Five—the extraordinary collection of A-list actors who form the core of the show’s ensemble cast—walking into the Carmel-by-the-Sea Police Department, presumably to confess that they have been lying about the death of Perry Wright, the abusive husband played by Alexander Skarsgård. Perry was pushed down a flight of stairs to his death by Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) in the first season, and the second season explored the emotional and psychological consequences of maintaining a false front. But what about the legal consequences? To find out, we spoke to someone in a position to know: Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Nana Knight, whose office would decide what charges, if any, to bring against the show’s characters. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matthew Dessem: So tell me a little bit about what you do.

Nana Knight: I’m a deputy district attorney, a prosecutor for the county of Monterey. I’m currently assigned to the gang unit: I prosecute gang cases, felonies, all kinds of violent and serious felonies.

So the Monterey Five would be your purview because they’re sort of a gang?

Obviously, I watched the show with great interest because it takes place in our home county.

How has it been received in the Monterey County D.A.’s office? You guys are in it sort of, looming in the background behind the police.

It’s actually quite interesting to see. Yesterday I was going over the last episode in Season 2, just seeing that Carmel Police Department in the background, that’s here. Worked with that department. So it brings very pleasant feelings watching the show and being portrayed in the show as a part of the law enforcement community in the county where this takes place.

Let’s talk about the hypotheticals. You would be the person making the decision whether or not you’d be bringing criminal charges, right?

Correct.

So let’s start with the first iteration of things. The first season, Perry, the abusive husband character, gets thrown down the stairs and dies and the characters don’t tell the truth about that. But if they had told the truth at the very beginning, what’s the process? How would you decide whether or not you’re going to bring a charge against somebody in a situation like that?

So, the way it works is the actual law enforcement agency that’s investigating the crime does a thorough investigation. They generate police reports and they gather witness statements, they gather corroborating evidence in support of the crime that they want to see prosecuted. The investigating agency is not the body that presses, charges, or initiates criminal prosecution. What they do is they gather that information and they submit it to our office for review and for our decision as to whether charges will be filed. Typically if I’m reviewing a case, it would be looking to see if the elements of the crime that I’m thinking was committed have been met by the evidence that we have. So typically what that means is in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Can I prove this case? Can I prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt in a trial by jury?” Where 12 men and women have to unanimously agree that this charge is true.

So it’s the law enforcement agency that says, “We think this is this crime.” And then you say yes or no, or, “Maybe we could charge this.”

Typically the law enforcement investigating agency, they do submit their recommended charges. We don’t always file the charges that they recommend. Sometimes we add more, we take away some. It depends.

So what would you do with that initial death? Perry is fighting with his wife, attacking her, the other women are trying to pull him off, and then Bonnie sees that from a distance and runs and pushes him. Is there something that you would charge there?

Against Bonnie?

Yeah. Or against any of the women involved.

I think there is a strong self-defense or defense of another person claim here that she can make. At the end of the day we have a dead body, so we’re looking at some sort of a homicide crime, right? So, in terms of homicide, we have first degree murder, second degree murder, and then we have the voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter. Those are considered lesser included offenses. In terms of the first degree murder, I don’t see any evidence of premeditation, willfulness, which would then make a crime first degree murder. So then we’re back down to second degree murder. Do we have the elements there? Do we not have the elements? And then, self-defense or defense of another could be a legally justifiable excuse. So I would take a hard look at that defense, assuming that scenario is really the truth and she’s stepping in to protect the other woman. So she has that claim of the defense of another person, I would argue. It would be based on those facts that I would have trouble proceeding on some sort of a homicide offense against her.

Now we have to look at the element of self-defense, or defense of another person. So Bonnie would have to believe that someone was in an imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury. It’s very, very fact-specific—it depends on what Perry is doing to Celeste. If Bonnie believes that Perry is going to inflict great bodily injury on Celeste, and if she believes that there is an immediate use of deadly force that’s necessary to defend against that danger, I would argue that she has a pretty solid ground for defense of another, which would then negate any kind of charge against her for homicide.

It would be hard to charge her then, even if she just pulled out a gun and shot him in the head, right? I mean what happens is she pushes him, I don’t think she intends to kill him. But what you’re saying is even if she had done something that was clearly intended to kill Perry, you would have a hard time with the charges because of the fact that Perry was attacking Celeste? It would be a hard case.

It would be. One of the elements for the defense of another is you have to show the defendant used no more force than reasonably necessary to defend against a danger. So if all she’s doing is pushing him and he ends up falling down the stairs, arguably, she didn’t use more force than was reasonably necessary, she was just trying to get him off of her.

And in a situation like that, you wouldn’t press charges unless you thought you could win the case. And in this case that’s just not gonna happen, right? It seems like that “defense of another” defense, it would be hard not to win that case if you’re the defense attorney.

It would be a tough case to prosecute. Now, prosecutors have an ethical obligation to, first of all, believe that a crime has been committed. We have to believe that the person is guilty. Based on those facts, I would personally have difficulty in charging her with manslaughter. And of course we have the added layer of being able to prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt. We would not be able to overcome that defense based on those facts. So I would probably not charge her with any homicide crimes. I would potentially look at what we call the assault causing great bodily injury. For that crime you don’t even need to touch somebody. But then again, we run into this self-defense, which could also be a defense to the assault charge. So I’m seeing a lot of problems with this case, if I were to actually file charges. Lots and lots of problems, not the least of which is being able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

So let’s talk about the second hypothetical. Let’s say everything happens the way it does on the show, and when all five of those women give their statements, they say, “No, he fell. No one pushed him, he fell. Tragic accident.” And then it’s a year later or whatever, and they walk into the police department and they say, “No, this is what really happened,” and they tell you what happened. What does that situation look like to the prosecutor’s office?

We have to see why these women, first of all, changed their stories. What is the motivation behind the statement? Who are they implicating now in their second statement? The women could be on the hook for making a false statement too. Under oath, if you lie, that could be a crime of perjury. But in this situation, I think being charged with accessories to a crime could be a potential punishment or a charge against all these women who maybe conspired to conceal the truth. Would we do it? I’m not sure. We would have to look to see the reasons as to why they did not disclose the truth about what happened in the first place.

And you wouldn’t want to always charge people for that because you want to encourage people to come forward with the truth, right?

Right. Exactly right.

In your career, has there ever been an out-of-the-blue confession like that? Nobody asked—all five of them at the end of that show just go into the police department and say, presumably, “Here’s what happened.” Is that something you’ve ever encountered?

I personally have not seen it. So, every time you have some sort of a crime that’s committed, you have to have the corpus delicti, which is a Latin term for the body of the crime. You have to look for corroboration. Here we have a dead body. So that wouldn’t be a problem. But every time you have some sort of an admission or confession of a crime, you’re looking for evidence to substantiate the crime with. So if it’s just a blanket, “I killed somebody,” well, okay, where’s the corpus, right? In this case, I think there are some underlying reasons as to why they didn’t decide to be truthful in their initial statement to the police officers. I would take that into consideration. In all likelihood, I would not charge these women if they’re going to be cooperative and if they’re going to enable us to get to the truth of what happened. Because you don’t want to alienate them by charging them. Then they become defendants and they can invoke their right not to incriminate themselves by further providing information that can be used against them. There are all kinds of rights that attach once you’re a suspect.

You’re a prosecutor, you’re not a police officer, but if you’re behind the desk and somebody comes in and says, “I want to confess a murder,” how would you, as a prosecutor, want the officer to handle that so that that person’s rights are protected? What’s the protocol?

Theoretically, somebody comes to me and walks into my office and says, “I killed somebody.” Okay, well it’s me and this person. I’m a witness. So I immediately go out and get an investigator, another witness to be present for this interaction. Now the question is are they in custody? Presumably if they’re coming into my office, they’re not in custody, right? They just freely walked in. So do I need to advise them of their Miranda rights when they’re not in custody? I’ve never had the situation come up. But any kind of questioning on my part that could elicit some sort of an incriminating response is basically grounds for the defense to argue that this person was entitled to a lawyer. But then my argument would be, well, they freely initiated the conversation. They were not in custody.

In this situation, where it’s not entirely clear that there is an underlying crime that you would want to charge, but the person at the desk at the police office, doesn’t necessarily know that—would you expect Bonnie to be arrested at that point or put in custody for some homicide-related thing, or what would you expect to happen?

So, the officer has to have probable cause to believe that Bonnie committed a crime, based on the evidence that they have.

Well, Bonnie and four corroborating witnesses are saying Bonnie pushed this man down the stairs…

But it was done in self-defense, right?

But you would want to make that decision, wouldn’t you?

Yeah. Typically, practically, what would happen is the agency would contact us and say, “Hey, could you take a look?” We do have a filing team, they’d probably go through them. “Hey, what do you think? We have all these facts. Do you think there’s been a crime committed?” And then we would take a look at it. And then in this situation I would say probably not.

The other thing is that that shot is at night, right, when they’re walking in, so presumably they’re not going to reach you until the next morning. Would you want the police to hold anybody in that situation?

I’m not concerned that we can’t find Bonnie. It’s get the information, get just as much information as you can, let me take a look at it. You don’t necessarily need to detain her overnight based on those facts, I don’t think, and we can always go back to her and do a follow-up statement. That’s routine and that’s done all the time. I would not detain her any further than necessary than just getting her statement.

But in this situation, even with the cover up, it seems like you probably wouldn’t charge Bonnie for pushing the guy. You would still have to overcome that self-defense thing, and that defense is difficult to beat because it’s true. So this wouldn’t affect whether or not you would bring a homicide charge, would it? Is there a manslaughter charge or something that might come out of it if you had all of these women saying, “Yeah she pushed her?” You’d have the same issue, right?

You would have the same issue.

So the end result here might be no charges for anybody, it sounds like? ’Cause you wouldn’t want to charge the people for coming forward, or would there be some sort of obstruction of justice or false statement charges that might come out of it?

Yeah, concealment of the evidence. There could be some sort of a conspiracy going on, which could be a felony charge.

In the immediate aftermath of Perry’s death, but before the police came, they discussed what they were going to say, what their story was going to be, and then they all told the same false story about Perry falling. It must be against the law to coordinate a false story and then tell it to the police, right?

Oh, absolutely. They’re conspiring to lie to the police to conceal the evidence. They’re accessories to a potential crime. But again, the question is what crime has been committed? I think at the end of the day, Bonnie has a very strong claim of self-defense. So, she could walk away scot-free from this. Now these other women are conspiring to prevent law enforcement from discovering the truth. So, there has been an agreement between all of them to concoct a story and just come forward with this false information to the police to potentially mislead them from the truth. Are they accessories to a crime? Maybe, the crime of withholding or concealing information from law enforcement. I would look at that. Practically speaking, would I charge them with that is a clearly different consideration.

Does it matter for the purpose of the law if you don’t charge the underlying crime at all? Could you charge Renata, Laura Dern’s character, with conspiracy, if you were not charging homicide or battery or anything at all against Bonnie? In other words, is that a defense to conspiracy? “You don’t think I covered up a crime because you’re not bringing charges.”

But technically, they’re actually committing a crime by not telling the truth. And it’s done in conspiracy. That’s one crime that I would look at. You can commit a misdemeanor or a felony conspiracy, so you can conspire to commit a felony or misdemeanor offense. So, in the context of these women getting together and coming up with a story, I think it comes down to some sort of a conspiracy. So, that could be prosecutable against them. Notwithstanding that Bonnie has her valid self-defense and she’s on not on the hook for any kind of homicide offense.

What sort of penalties would you be facing? What’s the worst thing you could do to Renata, say, six months in jail or something?

Well, I mean, Renata probably doesn’t have a criminal history, right? So, she would be eligible for probation without limitation. Some sort of criminal supervision with terms where she would report to a probation officer. If she violated any of the terms, then she could go to jail. But realistically, would I charge these women for concealing the evidence of how this happened? I mean, they’re really lying to the police, they’re conspiring. And maybe I would charge. It’s such a big deal. At the end of the day, we have a person, a dead body in this quiet community. And they have caused law enforcement to expend a lot of resources into investigating this, I think an argument can be made that that conduct is egregious.

Well, now I’ve done it. If I hadn’t kept asking, they would have all walked.

So I would not rule out charging these women because at the end of the day, we have a dead body. As to whether Bonnie is culpable for the killing of Perry, maybe not. But the cover up is kind of the secondary layer to this.

Well I guess we’ll find out in season three what they end up facing.

Yeah. And you know, the more I talk to you about it, the more I—it’s aggravating if this really happened, right? For these women to cover this up. So I would probably consider charging them.

In this case, would there be political considerations that touch on that? How does that work, exactly? What’s Monterey like in terms of socioeconomics?

So, we have equal opportunity offenders. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, if we believe that a crime has been committed, if we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, regardless of that person’s status, social background, we’re going to go ahead and charge because we’re in the business of protecting the public. And so the socioeconomic factors would not really be considered in a charging decision. I guess the question is just because they come from a rich, wealthy family, would we not charge them and let them off the hook? No, absolutely not.

But of all the defendants you could choose to press charges against, it seems like this would be a gigantic nightmare given who these people apparently are in the community.

We’re very mindful of the media, of the publicity that happens in some of our cases. So, in this kind of situation, if these women were charged, of course there would be a lot of media interest.

You’d be extra careful to be doing things by the book.

Right. And in terms of charging decisions, we’d look at a person’s criminal history. Their contributions to the community. Are they a productive citizen? Things like that factor into our decisions as to what charges we file, what kind of enhancements we add. So, criminal history obviously would be one, and in this case these individuals don’t have criminal histories. But their socioeconomic status, that doesn’t negate the possibility of them being defendants.

Do you have any other thoughts about how Big Little Lies portrays your community and your job?

You know, it’s a pleasant feeling to know that our county is being publicized in the show, and people in the world are watching and seeing how beautiful Monterey is. It’s actually a great source of pride for me.

Yeah, it must be great for the county. It’s a really beautiful part of the world.

It really is. It’s a world class destination.

Just be careful around the stairs.