The Fargo series has a predictably violent plot that really gets started when ridiculously meek Lester Nygaard meets dangerous assassin Lorne Malvo in the hospital. What happens next is exactly the kind of occurrence that criminal lawyers deal with every day. If you haven’t watched the series yet, don’t worry, we’ll only be discussing what happens within the first half-hour or so of the pilot, so there aren’t any spoilers here.
A Casual Conversation Between Strangers
While seated next to each other in the emergency room, Malvo gets Lester, who has a broken nose, to start talking about what caused his injury. Lester admits that he was picked on by the man who used to be his high school bully, Sam Hess. Lester also reveals that Sam taunted him about having sexual relations with his wife back in high school.
At this point, Malvo says that if he was in the same position, he would have killed Sam. He then reiterates all the terrible things Sam did and says he is a man who does not deserve to draw breath. Lester argues at first, but then agrees and says that he could never do such a thing, frustratedly blurting out, “if you’re so sure about it, why don’t you just kill him for me?”
When Malvo confirms “you’re asking me to kill this man?” The nurse arrives as Lester says that he was joking and tries to cool the situation by saying that he and Malvo are just chatting. Malvo tries to get him to confirm the kill by either saying yes or no. When the nurse starts harassing Lester to go with her or give up his spot, he jumps up exclaiming “yeah, I’m coming” at her -never confirming or denying that he wants Malvo to act. Unsurprisingly, Malvo does kill Sam Hess, sparking off the chain of events that makes up the rest of the season.
The Real Life Lester Nygaard and Sam Hess
One funny thing about the Fargo movie and TV series is that the directors claim they are based on true stories. In a philosophical manner of speaking, this is accurate —the franchise features real-life made-up stories and therefore each story is true in that it was an actual account of fictional events. To that end, Star Wars is true too.
As to Fargo being based on real-life events, it’s not, and the producers added the “true story” claims at the start of the show simply to get the audience more invested in the on-screen events. While there are many real-life people named “Sam Hess,” none of them were actually murdered on account of the actions of anyone named Lorne Malvo or Lester Nygard.
So is Lester Responsible for Sam’s Death?
Of course, this is a legal blog and while Fargo is a good show, there would be no point in bringing it up if it wasn’t to discuss a legal issue and, in this case, that question is: could Lester be brought up on charges for Sam Hess’ death?
The obvious answer for those who saw the exchange would be no, since Lester never hired Malvo, but the real-life examination of the issue is a bit more complex since no one actually overheard the conversation. In this case, when police identify that Malvo is responsible for Sam Hess’ death and recognize that he is a hitman, they would discover that Lester was seen talking to Malvo in the hospital and they would realize that he does have an issue with Sam. This could be enough evidence for police to confront Lester.
Because it could be possible to construe Lester’s saying “yeah” to the nurse as his covertly saying yes to Malvo, it would be a pretty good idea for Lester to contact a lawyer before speaking to the police. Most attorneys will tell you that sometimes just trying to help the police in an investigation can end up putting you in the defendant’s seat.
In this case (without looking at the other events of the show), it would be pretty unlikely that Lester would be charged with any actual crime relating to Sam Hess’ death and even less likely that he would be convicted. Even so, it’s easy to see why he might want to speak with an attorney before things get even messier.
If you find yourself in a similarly legally challenging situation, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.