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"I object, Your Honor. What precedent are we setting here? That the defendant isn't actually the defendant?"
— An American Pickle (2020)

Suppose that a man that society identifies as Herschel Greenbaum is put on trial for a crime that Herschel Greenbaum allegedly committed. However, his attorney claims that the defendant is not Herschel Greenbaum, but another person, Ben Greenbaum, and thus he is innocent.

Would such a defense be possible? If so, how the trial would be handled?

My perplexity is that the purpose of a trial is to establish the innocence or guilt of the defendant, not to establish that the person in the courtroom is the actual defendant.

Note: It seems that my question is somehow unclear. To make it more clear, you can image that the prosecutor has very compelling evidences against Herschel Greenbaum, and that the judge, the jury, and even the defense are quite convinced that Herschel Greenbaum is guilty. Can the defense prove that the man in the courtroom is not the real Herschel Greenbaum? If so, what happens? Is the verdict: "Herschel Greenbaum is not guilty," or is it: "Ben Greenbaum is not guilty," or is there no verdict and the trial is canceled, since the defendant was the wrong man, or something else?

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  • I mean, you gotta prove beyond reasonable doubt that one is guilty (or at least a government is ought to), and if you don't even know who you're trying to put behind bars, that's a pretty important doubt. A traffic citation defendant showed up in court and presented the defense that the court could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the photo of the traffic camera depicted him and not his twin. There, you simply should not be able to come to a guilty verdict--the court nonetheless did because who's going to put the judge behind bars, but in principle, I don't see why "perplex[ed".
    – kisspuska
    Nov 21, 2021 at 4:11
  • Is this, by any chance, connected to the "sovereign citizen" nonsense?
    – Brondahl
    Nov 21, 2021 at 9:21
  • @Brondahl no, it is not.
    – BubbleZ
    Nov 21, 2021 at 17:53
  • There was a film where supposedly twin sister A had murdered twin sister B and went to court, and then it turned out that the person in court was actually twin sister B and the person murdered was twin sister A. Interesting problem.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 22, 2021 at 15:25
  • Cases like that rarely get to trial. They often come up when there is a mistaken identity in service of an arrest warrant when defendants have similar names, but are usually cleared up before trial.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 22, 2021 at 20:27

1 Answer 1

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This is, in effect a defense of mistaken identity, and an assertion that the person on trial is not in fact the person who committed the crime.

It is not legally significantly different from a case where the defendant claims that a witness has identified the wrong person.

Exactly how the defense would be conducted would depend on what evidence establishes that "Herschel Greenbaum" committed the crime, and what evidence establishes (or disproves) that the defendant on trial is that same Herschel Greenbaum.

The purpose of a trial is to establish or fail to establish the guilt of the person actually on trial, normally the person present in the courtroom. (trials do not establish innocence in the US). "The defendant" is the person actually on trial, even if an incorrect name has been used in bringing the charge. In such a case people would need to be careful about evidence that applies to a person named "Herschel Greenbaum" but might not apply to the defendant actually on trial.

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  • I have a cousin who had to go to court for similar matter, although I believe that it was a civil matter. The actual guilty party had the same name as my cousin, and my cousin had to prove they weren't them. Nov 21, 2021 at 5:21
  • " "The defendant" is the person actually on trial, even if an incorrect name has been used in bringing the charge. " What is still unclear to me is what happens if the trial fails to establish the guilt of the person actually on trial. Is Herschel Greenbaum declared "not guilty"? That seems wrong to me, since the real Herschel Greenbaum might actually be guilty. I guess there must be some way to declare that the man in the courtroom is not Herschel Greenbaum and thus he can go free, and that the trial will resume when the real Herschel Greenbaum will be found.
    – BubbleZ
    Nov 21, 2021 at 8:34
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    @BubbleZ the question of names is really secondary; the problem still exists even if the two people have the same name. Suppose the person in court really is named Herschel Greenbaum but is nonetheless a different person from the Herschel Greenbaum who is suspected of committing the crime. If the trial ends in acquittal, it doesn't prevent a subsequent trial of a different individual for the same crime, regardless of the person's name. A subsequent trial would not be a continuation but a new trial. Conversely, committing a crime under a false name does not allow one to escape prosecution.
    – phoog
    Nov 21, 2021 at 12:47
  • @Phoog Quite true, the question is one of *identity. A name is only evidence of identity, and not always conclusive evidence. Was I not clear about that in the answer above? Nov 21, 2021 at 14:45
  • The answer is certainly clear; I was responding to the comment "What is still unclear to me is what happens if the trial fails to establish the guilt of the person actually on trial. Is Herschel Greenbaum declared "not guilty"? That seems wrong to me, since the real Herschel Greenbaum might actually be guilty."
    – phoog
    Nov 21, 2021 at 16:26

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