Home Before Dark: What Would Happen in Real Life?

Stephen Lee
9 min readJun 23, 2020

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Hilde (Brooklynn Prince) and Matt Lisko (Jim Sturgess) in Apple’s Home Before Dark

Apple’s Home Before Dark is a great TV series but it is dark. Very dark.

Over the course of the first season, law-enforcement officials commit crimes and ethical violations, and those actions come to light only because of a 9-year-old reporter who breaks the law herself.

Yeesh.

I used to analyze legal issues in TV shows through the now-defunct website FootnoteTV, and I wanted to discuss how events in Home Before Dark could play out in real life, based on my own experiences as a federal prosecutor, a defense attorney, a newspaper reporter, and, finally, a dad who has helped his kids become kid reporters themselves. My kids and I all loved the show, and I hope you find this useful if you or your kids have questions about the show.

Many spoilers below!

Hilde and friends interviewing Sam Gillis about the murder of his sister Penny

The Murder of Penny Gillis (episodes 1–3)

The first case that Hilde investigates and solves in Erie Harbor is the death of Penny Gillis, which is initially dismissed as an accident but turns out to be a homicide. Unfortunately, in real life, Penny’s killer might go free because the government’s case is largely based on an illegal search.

In episode 3, Deputy Trip Johnson suspects prison guard Ed Quinlin enough to question him, but she does not have much evidence against him and she does not have enough evidence to get a warrant to search his home. Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, police cannot search a home without a warrant, consent, or emergency circumstances, none of which Deputy Johnson had.

Hilde, while accompanying Deputy Johnson, breaks into Quinlin’s home, searches the home, and finds pill capsules tying Quinlin to Penny Gillis and her home. Hilde has committed the crime of criminal trespass, but she may not have violated Killian’s Fourth Amendment rights because the Fourth Amendment applies only to the police and its agents. If Hilde had broken into the home without Deputy Johnson’s knowledge, and then brought the evidence of the pill capsules to her, then there would be no Fourth Amendment problem because the Fourth Amendment only applies to the police and its agents.

The problem is that Deputy Johnson brought Hilde to Quinlin’s home when she knew that she should not have brought Hilde there. A court might find that Hilde was acting as Deputy Johnson’s agent at the time of the illegal search, and then find that the police cannot use the evidence from the search at trial.

On top of that, any confession that police got out of Quinlin might be declared inadmissible because it resulted from an illegal search (sometimes called the “fruit of a poisonous tree”). Without the pills found in Quinlin’s home and without his confession, the case probably would fall apart, and Quinlin would go free.

It is also somewhat unclear what crime Quinlin specifically committed. He caused Penny Gillis’s death, but he may not have actually committed the crime of “murder.” Murder generally requires an intent to cause another person’s death, and the show does not clearly show intent. Quinlin might have pushed or hit Penny without intending her to fall down the stairs and to be killed. If that is so, then he would not be guilty of murder but would still be guilty of the crime of manslaughter, which involves situations where someone recklessly or negligently causes another person’s death.

Whether or not Quinlin is convicted for murder or manslaughter (or anything), Sam Gillis could sue the prison for its involvement in his sister’s death. Quinlin had threatened Sam for a long time, and used his position to get money and drugs from Sam’s sister. Sam could argue that the prison was, at the least, negligent in supervising Quinlin and bears responsibility for Penny’s death.

The prison would try to argue that Sam waived his right to sue, but this argument likely would be rejected. In episode 5, a prison official grants Sam a two-day release from prison as long as he drops his right to sue the prison. This agreement is probably invalid because Sam was under duress — he faced undue pressure given the circumstances, and a court would likely not enforce the waiver. The prison official who conditioned Sam’s furlough on his waiver probably acted improperly in doing so, and likely could face disciplinary action as a result.

In the end, the prison likely would have to pay Sam something for the death of his sister.

Hilde watching Sam Gillis get taken back into custody

The Wrongful Conviction of Sam Gillis (the entire season)

There are many, many problems with how Captain Frank Briggs Sr. (later Sheriff) conducted the investigation into Richie Fife’s kidnapping and (presumed) death in 1988.

To begin with, Frank Briggs Sr. should not have been involved in the Richie Fife investigation because of a conflict of interest. His son was one of the two main witnesses to the kidnapping, and his son thus had a bias to provide evidence that helped his father’s investigation (and career). Frank Briggs Sr. should have been recused from the investigation, and the case should have been assigned to another investigator or office.

Moreover, the interrogation scene in episode 3 is extremely problematic. Frank Briggs Sr. suggests the answers to his son and pressures his son into saying that Sam Gillis was involved, rather than asking what his son actually observed. Frank Briggs Sr. also improperly suggested an identification of Sam Gillis’s van’s license plate number by showing the license plate to his son and identifying the plate as Gillis’s.

This problem has come up when people are asked to identify a criminal suspect, and the U.S. Department of Justice and many police departments have policies to minimize the possibility of suggestive identifications. For example, if a witness is trying to identify a robber, police typically should not show a single photo of the suspect to the witness and ask the witness to confirm that this was the robber. Instead, police should present multiple photos in a way that does not suggest the answer. For example, police should get a general description of the robber, find multiple people who fit that description, and then show multiple photos to the witness without suggesting any answers. Ideally, the police officer presenting the photos or the lineup should not even know who the suspect is and thus be unable to suggest anything.

Here, investigators should have simply asked Frank Briggs Jr. if he had seen a license plate on the van and what if any parts of the plate he recognized. What happened here was improperly suggestive.

As bad as the investigation was up to that point, Frank Briggs Sr.’s actions crossed a line when he concealed the Birdman’s videotape of the kidnapping and tried to destroy it. Under the Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, the government must disclose to a defendant information that would tend to indicate that the defendant did not commit the crime. Once Briggs was aware of a videotape that contradicted the evidence presented at trial, he should have disclosed the tape to Sam Gillis’s lawyer so that Sam Gillis could ask for a new trial. His failure to do so was a Brady violation that would cast serious doubt on the validity of Sam’s conviction, and a federal court might order Sam’s release as a result. Frank Briggs Sr.’s actions may even constitute a federal crime (violation of civil rights) if it was motivated by Sam Gillis’s being Native American.

And then Sheriff Briggs made things even worse by destroying Sam Gillis’s van in episode 5. This made it more difficult to show that Sam’s van was not the one on the Birdman’s video and thus was not used in the kidnapping and thus more difficult to show that Sam was not guilty. The sheriff’s actions here could even be a violation of Washington state law prohibiting the destruction of physical evidence.

In real life, episode 5 would be the turning point in getting Sam released from jail. By the end of that episode, Hilde has revealed that Sheriff Briggs had concealed evidence, that he had tried to destroy evidence, and that there are two witnesses who could testify about this — the Birdman and Sheriff Briggs’ own daughter. Based on all this, Sam Gillis would have been able to start challenging his conviction and sentence.

Federal law and the U.S. Constitution allows prisoners to challenge their convictions with “habeas” petitions in federal court. Federal law places strict time limits on habeas petitions, but generally does allow a prisoner to try bringing an action if he or she discovers new evidence of innocence. In real life, Sam’s sister Penny should have taken the videotape to a lawyer who would have begun the process of filing a habeas petition. A court then may have allowed evidentiary hearings into the videotape, which likely would have involved testimony by Sheriff Briggs, his daughter, and the Birdman.

Ultimately, what Hilde uncovered by the end of episode 5 should have been enough in real life to give Sam a good chance at being released (though the process likely would take a long time). Ultimately, a federal court probably would have ordered a new trial, and the case probably would have to be dropped at that point due to a lack of evidence. That might not be enough to clear Sam’s name, but it would be enough to get him out of prison.

Hilde and Matt shortly after stealing evidence

The Investigation of Margaret Miller (episodes 6–10)

Looking beyond Sam Gillis, the turning point for the broader investigation of Richie Fife’s kidnapping and (presumed) death was the discovery of DNA evidence indicating that Principal Collins’ mother’s blood was on the jacket, raising questions about her involvement as well as her criminal past.

Unfortunately, this development was the result of a very bad idea. Hilde and her father committed a crime by taking Richie’s jacket from Fernando the psychic in episode 6. In real life, Matt should have asked the Sheriff’s Department or the FBI to ask for Fernando to voluntarily provide the jacket for DNA testing. If Fernando refused, the Sheriff’s Department could have sought a warrant to seize the jacket for such testing.

Principal Collins’ mother, whose real name was Margaret Miller, then gave a partial confession to the kidnapping. She could have been prosecuted for the murder of Richie Fife based on her confession, except for the twist ending that Richie might not have died. Margaret Miller agreed to kidnap Richie with her brother Zeke Miller, and she believed that Richie was fatally stabbed by Zeke during the course of the kidnapping. Margaret Miller thus would be guilty of Richie Fife’s murder under the “felony murder” rule, which applies in many states including Washington State. Under the felony murder rule, people are responsible for deaths caused by their criminal partners during the course of certain dangerous crimes, including kidnappings and burglaries. Accordingly, even though Margaret Miller did not intend to kill Richie herself, she could have been held responsible for his death (if he had actually died).

As for the kidnapping, Margaret Miller could not be prosecuted for that crime because too much time had passed. There is no time limit on prosecutions for murder, but there is a time limit (referred to as the “statute of limitations”) for most other crimes.

Hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Stephen Lee was a federal prosecutor in Chicago for 11 years and now is a lawyer in private practice. He was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the mid-1990s and ran the now-defunct website FootnoteTV in the 2000s. He has two kids, including one who was a Kid Reporter for Time for Kids.

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Stephen Lee

Lawyer, former federal prosecutor in Chicago (2008–January 2019), former newspaper reporter. Work site at stephenleelaw.com