The disappearance of Gabby Petito and the recent discovery of her fiancée Brian Laundrie’s remains have been the controversial subject of headlines for months, with new details unfolding before a captive national audience. Evidence of an altercation between the couple surfaced around the time that her remains were found in Wyoming in late September. An autopsy ruled her death a homicide by manual strangulation while Laundrie, a person of interest to authorities, became the focus of a national manhunt.

Nearly a month after Petito was found, skeletal remains were discovered in Florida. Belongings near the remains appeared to belong to Laundrie, and dental records confirmed that the remains were, in fact, Laundrie’s. The most recent update from NBC News reports that “Brian Laundrie’s remains were sent to an anthropologist ‘for further evaluation’ after autopsy results came back inconclusive.”

What happened to Gabby Petito?

According to CNN’s timeline, Petito’s family reported her missing on September 11 after not being able to contact her since late August. The Petito family attorney held a news conference five days later that garnered national attention; meanwhile, Laundrie had returned home to Florida. His parents, after initially refusing to speak to local authorities, request the police come to their home. During this meeting, authorities learned that Laundrie’s parents had not seen him since September 14.

The Petito case garnered massive public interest and engagement. Speculation abounds regarding the particular details of the couples last days together. Sadly, many of the answers that their families, authorities and the general public so desperately want are likely to remain unanswered. However, the timeline of events and the seeming reluctance of the Laundrie family to respond to requests for information about their son’s whereabouts gives rise to one major question; what are the legal requirements in a situation like this?

This may sound overly simplistic, but in order to understand your rights in a given situation, you need to know exactly what the circumstances were before and during an event. In an extreme example, a person who shoots and kills someone else may be guilty of premeditated murder – or completely innocent under Tennessee’s Stand Your Ground law if the “victim” was breaking into their home.

The circumstances leading up to Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie’s untimely deaths are complex, not least because there are a great many unanswered questions and some potentially suspicious activity. In particular, the fact that Laundrie was seen as a person of interest in Petito’s death had the potential to create an extremely dense and thorny legal situation.

Was Petito’s murder a state or federal crime?

Petito’s remains were found in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which is part of the national parks system and therefore federal property. Additionally, we know that Laundrie returned to his home in Florida on September 1, 10 days before Petito was officially reported missing and in the same vehicle the couple had been driving on their road trip. While we may never know what happened at Grand Teton, the fact is that Laundrie left the park and drove to Florida in the vehicle they were traveling in together.

If in fact Laundrie had some involvement in Petito’s death, a legal case for criminal defense would be daunting for even the most experienced attorneys. A crime occurred on federal land, and the last person known to have been in the presence of the victim left the scene and crossed through no fewer than six states to return to his home. Following this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced that a federal arrest warrant had been issued, indicting Laundrie for using a debit card and PIN (Petito’s) that didn’t belong to him.

Understanding that the identity of the killer is unknown, this person could be charged with federal murder in the first degree. The unique circumstances create a cross-over issue, so the killer could also be charged with murder in accordance with state law. This might seem like a violation of double jeopardy (in which a person cannot be charged for the same crime twice), but in fact is not. State and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction in these circumstances. In these rare cases, federal cases are usually tried first.

Where does Attorney Client Privilege end?

Brian Laundrie’s parents initially declined a request for information from authorities. To be clear, the family was in no way required to disclose their son’s location, whether or not they knew where he was. In fact, no one can be compelled to disclose an individual’s location or privileged information – with very few exceptions.

Enter the Crime Fraud Exception. From the American Bar Association, “Under this exception, a request is made for communications between a client and its attorney, based upon allegations that the legal advice was used in furtherance of an illegal or fraudulent activity. Such a request can be made before, during, or after trial, and can effectively derail discovery or trial.”

Our legal system depends on the protections afforded by Attorney Client Privilege. As we mentioned above, the circumstances of a case can greatly affect the outcome. Without the benefit of confidential communication, the whole system dissolves. Luckily, invoking the Crime Fraud Exception is no small task, and requires multiple steps to compel production.

This post covers a lot of ground, but could easily be twice the length and still not address all of the hypothetical complexities of the Petito/Laundrie saga. Federal vs state crimes is a complex area of the law, and defendants facing multiple charges need experienced attorneys at their side.

The Sevierville criminal defense attorneys at Delius & McKenzie, PLLC understand how to defend against state and federal criminal charges; our attorneys have been fighting for the accused for over 25 years. For aggressive defense help in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Greenville and the Tri-Cities areas, call our offices at 865-428-8780 or fill our contact form to schedule a confidential appointment at your convenience.