The Boy Who Cried Balloon

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On October 15, 2009, Richard and Mayumi Heene called 911 in a panic. Their son Falcon had gone missing, as had a large metallic helium balloon housed in their backyard. Local and federal authorities conducted a highly publicized rescue effort for the “UFO,” but when the balloon was recovered, it was found empty. The Heenes eventually admitted that the incident was a hoax and a publicity stunt—Falcon was in the house the whole time.

Facing a media circus and exasperated law enforcement, prosecutors at the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office needed to act. But first, they had to decide which aspects of this debacle were truly criminal. Which charges would satisfy the public opinion and deter future stunts like this, while being legally defensible and just? With both parents facing charges, what responsibility did the prosecution have to preserve the unity of the family?  The parents were eccentric, but were they unstable? Was it even in the children’s best interests for the parents to retain custody?

Professors Alex Whiting and Todd Rakoff’s case study, Balloon Boy, asks participants to make decisions and evaluations from the perspective of the assistant District Attorneys. After debating practical and ethical concerns and discussing the statutory and case law in context, student teams draft a memo with recommendations for the District Attorney.“The problem is written to emphasize prosecutorial discretion, both as to what is the best outcome and as to the best way to get there,” says Rakoff. “But prosecutorial discretion operates in the shadow of what the law permits, and how clearly or ambiguously it is stated. The purpose of this memo is to describe that shadow.”

Developed for the Problem Solving Workshop, a required 1L course at Harvard Law School, the case includes four parts: an initial description of the problem, presented through fictionalized email correspondence; a probing evaluation of the case’s competing interests, intended to spark follow-up class sessions; and the citations for two suggested supplemental readings, about prosecutorial discretion and the case’s real-life resolution.  Included in the free educator copy is a detailed teaching note with legal analysis from Rakoff and suggested YouTube clips of the media coverage of the events.

The Problem Solving Workshop allows students to confront client problems in the way practicing lawyers do, from the very beginning. Rakoff, who teaches administrative law, contracts, and government structure at Harvard Law School, has taught in the Problem Solving Workshop since its inception in 2010.

For more information, or to discuss how to adapt the case study and problem solving pedagogy for your academic or professional education needs, contact Lisa Brem, Case Studies Program Manager, at

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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