SPOILERS BELOW FOR GONE GIRL
Amazing Amy got away with it. Or did she?
By the end of the book Gone Girl, Amy Elliott Dunne definitely got away with setting up her husband Nick for her fake murder. Nick is clearly trapped and outmatched.
But framing Nick was not all that Amy did, and whether she gets away with everything that she did is less clear, despite everything Amy tells herself at the end of the book as she and Nick approach their sixth wedding anniversary.
And that’s because of a flaw in Amy that is apparent throughout the entire book. She is too focused on her husband and does not think enough about other people. And, at least in the book version, Amy has not taken into account one particular person who was affected by her actions and can do something about it.
Hello. My name is Stephen Lee, and I am a former federal prosecutor and a former newspaper reporter (I am now an attorney in private practice). Back in the 2000s, I explored how real-life legal and political issues were depicted in fictional works with a website called FootnoteTV. As a result, when I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I could not help but think about how I would approach the case and finally decided to work out and share those thoughts here.
As a reader of a thriller like Gone Girl, you learn things out of sequence just like a real-life investigator would. You come in after something bad has already happened or is in the process of happening, and you have to figure out what actually happened without the benefit of firsthand or omnisicent observation. And, like real life, you have to learn what happened in pieces from “unreliable narrators” like Nick and Amy, people who are not credible and/or who have hidden agendas. Or both.
When I investigate a complicated case in real life, I often work out a chronology of events to keep track of what actually happened (or at least what people are telling me happened). I sometimes even do side-by-side chronologies to track different witnesses’ version of events. This helps me see how accounts match or contradict each other.
Here’s a version of events that build up to “the day of” according to what you read in Part One, “Boy Loses Girl.”
Now here’s a version of events once we learn the truth in Part Two (“Boy Meets Girl”), which is that Amy wrote many diary entries to set up her husband.
Now that we see this, let’s see how the chronologies unfold after Amy disappears.
In the end, Amy changes her plans and makes a new narrative in which she was kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend Desi Collings and held prisoner for weeks. Her new story explains away what she did on July 5, and she eventually gets Nick to admit doing all the credit-card purchases that she had used to set him up. And she seems to get away with it.
“I was smart, I left no other evidence. The police may not entirely believe me, but they won’t do anything,” Amy tells herself towards the end.
The problem is that Amy did not think much about Desi.
And Desi had his own life and there were people who did care about him.
Nick and Amy provide us enough information to see that Desi had a life before Amy called him on July 14, 2012. We know that Desi is close to his mother and that his mother keeps his schedule “full.” We know that he could not simply pick up and meet Amy immediately after she called. And, most significantly, we know from Nick’s account that the police had talked to Desi and had ruled Desi out as a suspect by July 10. Nick thinks this is because police had misread Desi, but Detective Rhonda Boney would not have been so adamant about Desi’s not being a suspect unless there was a good reason. We do not know what Desi was doing on July 5, but he was doing something else that was verifiable and had been verified. Desi had an alibi.
And that is the flaw in Amy’s story that she did not account for, and the flaw that could prove to be her undoing.
And that is where Desi’s mother comes in.
Jacqueline Collings is last referenced in the book just 30 days after Amy kills Desi. Nick describes how she “had popped up on a few cable shows, insisting on her son’s innocence” and then “got written off quickly.” But that is far from the end for her because Jacqueline Collings is mad and because she has money. And that is a powerful, dangerous combination.
She could — and would — hire lawyers and investigators to build a case against Amy. Here is how this could play out.
Amy definitely killed Desi. She admitted this to police and to the media. She is locked into a story that she came up with and that paints herself in a sympathetic light.
Legally, Amy has admitted committing the act of homicide, meaning that she has caused the death of another person. She has also claimed that the homicide was justified as an act of self-defense. A justifiable homicide is not murder, so Amy has not admitted the crime of murder and has not admitted committing any crime whatsoever.
But if her act of homicide was not justified, then she would be guilty of murder.
Even if the police stopped looking, investigators and lawyers hired by Jacqueline Collings would pick at every part of Amy’s account and would look for every piece of evidence that showed that Desi was doing something else somewhere else at every possible turn. Desi had a good enough alibi for July 5 to be quickly ruled out as a suspect by police, and that alibi could be built up over time.
Let’s line up what we know about Desi’s life against Real Amy and Victim Amy:
There is already a lot here for investigators to work with, as there are a lot of dates that Amy had no control over and probably did not know enough about to explain away in Victim Amy’s narrative.
· Desi probably was with his mother many of the days when Victim Amy claims he was holding her hostage, driving her around, and finally bringing her to Lake Hannafan.
· Desi definitely was seen by multiple witnesses in North Carthage on July 7 helping look for Amy when Victim Amy claims that he was driving her around.
· Desi definitely was in St. Louis on July 10 with his mother and with Nick when Victim Amy claims that he was still driving her around.
· Desi had a cell phone — cell-site records would show that he was not in Lake Carthage on July 5 and might show that he was not at Lake Hannafan on the days when Victim Amy says he was holding her captive and raping her.
· Desi had four cars, three houses, and suites of suits and shoes — his credit-card records probably would also help show his locations on the key dates and probably show that he was doing things other than holding Amy hostage. There might even be records or footage showing that the car that Amy supposedly was held in was not where Victim Amy needs the car to have been.
Victim Amy’s story holds up well enough to clear away suspicions that she framed Nick. It would not hold up well if you’re looking to avenge Desi.
Given all the holes that can be made in Victim Amy’s story, Jacqueline Collings would bring a wrongful-death lawsuit against Amy.
Under Missouri law, Desi’s mother could bring a lawsuit against Amy for causing his death. Ron Goldman’s family did this to O.J. Simpson after he was acquitted of murdering Goldman and Nicole Simpson. That case, which resulted in a jury finding that O.J. Simpson was responsible for their wrongful deaths, provides some context for what would happen next.
First, a complaint would be filed in Missouri state court against Amy, accusing her of causing the wrongful death of Desi Collings. The complaint would be Desi’s mother’s best chance to re-frame the narrative, and she might be able to start turning the public around with detailed facts that establish Desi’s alibi for July 5 and the days immediately thereafter. The complaint might get Amy’s publisher to stop publication of her book, or it might boost sales if the book is already out.
Second, Amy would be deposed, just as O.J. Simpson was deposed in the civil litigation. O.J. Simpson could not invoke his Fifth Amendment rights when deposed because he had already been acquitted of murdering Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, so he had to testify. Amy could invoke her Fifth Amendment rights, but that would run counter to everything that she had already claimed, so she probably would be deposed and would give the same story that she had already given to law enforcement. The problem is that, this time, she would be facing a hostile lawyer who would be prepared to find holes in her account and expose contradictions.
Third, Nick would find himself in a difficult spot because he too would be deposed. Nick might have been able to claim spousal privilege in a criminal case, but not in a civil case. Nick would have to decide whether to stick with the story that Amy wants him to tell (thus committing perjury), telling the truth, or invoking his own Fifth Amendment privilege. Nick, after all, arguably became an accomplice after the fact to Desi’s murder by helping cover for Amy.
If Nick decides to tell the truth, Amy would turn on him and would use his affidavit against him. But then Nick himself could turn to his sister, Detective Boney, and even his own lawyer Tanner Bolt to testify that Nick made “prior consistent statements” before signing the affidavit.
But if Nick lies, then he might find himself in even more trouble. Nick’s sister and Detective Boney probably would be deposed, and they cannot claim Fifth Amendment privileges. Nick’s statements to them would be admissible at least against him and possibly against Amy.
Fourth, the case likely would go to a trial. Unlike a criminal trial, Desi’s mother could call Amy as a witness, and again Amy would have to testify unless she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The case would turn on whether Amy acted in self-defense, and Desi’s estate would focus on showing that Amy is a liar. The jury would decide the case by a lower standard of proof than in a criminal case and would simply decide whether there was a preponderance of evidence in favor of Desi’s estate.
If the jury found for Amy, that would probably be the end of her legal problems, though her media image would probably be at least somewhat tarnished and in doubt. But if the jury found against Amy, then Amy would owe money to Desi’s mother, probably everything in her trust fund and everything she might make from the book she was planning to write about herself.
A civil judgment would not be the end of Amy’s problems. And that’s because the police could always open (or re-open) a murder case against Amy, as there is no statute of limitations on murder cases. And the police could use all the evidence that came out of the civil case, including any statements that Amy made when deposed.
Gone Girl (the book) ends with Amy on ten months, two weeks, six days after “the return,” so on or about June 30, 2013. We don’t know what happens afterwards. But the story likely does not go as well for Amy as she thinks it will that day.
At least for the book version of Amy. The movie probably goes much better for her. After all, in the movie, there’s no indication that Desi has any relatives and thus no indication that anyone could bring a wrongful death against Movie Amy.
As a result, Movie Amy probably does get away with everything.
Or at least that’s what I think could happen. We’ll find out if Gillian Flynn ever returns to Amy and Nick, but hopefully this helps gives you something more to think about for now.
Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to discuss. Thanks for reading!