A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Manhunter #7: The Trial of the Shadow Thief

"Trial By Fire Part 2: Witness for the Prosecution"
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artists: Jesus Saiz and Fernando Blanco

I haven't been following this series, but I have heard very good things about it. Since the current arc features a criminal trial spinning out of Identity Crisis, now seemed like a good chance to check it out. If I'm going to talk about criminal law in comics, I'd be amiss to ignore the comic that stars a criminal prosecutor. If it's good, then I'll be happy. If it's not, well, Mr. Ingersoll suffered through the awful Vigilante and "The Trial of the Flash," and this book at least guarantees me some very nice art.

Thus far, I'm happy about the art.

This issue is apparently the second to focus on the Shadow Thief's trial for murdering Ronnie Raymond, the hero Firestorm, in Identity Crisis #5. I didn't read IC (fortunately, so I hear), but my understanding is that the Shadow Thief stole the Shining Knight's sword and used it to stab Firestorm in the chest, afterwhich the nuclear-powered Firestorm exploded. (Howling Curmudgeons offers a critical analysis of this event from a physicist's POV.) This information puts me in about the same position as the jurors in the issue: they didn't see the crime, but Kate Spencer must have described it in her opening statement.

Andreyko does pretty well for the first little bit. Well, the first page. More like the first dialogue balloon. Actually, just the first eight words. By word nine, there's a big error, one that was inevitable given the high concept for this arc.

The word is "federal." Kate Spencer is a federal prosecutor, and Carl Sands is being tried in a federal court. Simply put, that ain't right. Sands is charged with murder, and 99% of the time murder is a state crime, not a federal one.

Short Constitutional lesson: Congress isn't allowed to pass any law it likes. It's limited to laws relating to certain functions layed out in the Constitution, stuff like granting copyrights and regulating commerce between the states. They've gotten looser in their standards over time, but most common crimes remain the jurisdiction of the states. Crimes can become federal offenses, and fall under federal court jurisdiction, in certain cases, though. This includes when a murder took place on federal property, or the victim was an agent of the federal government, or taking a victim across state lines. Certain murder-for-hire situations may have interstate communications allowing for prosecution in a federal court.

But, as best as I can tell, none of those possibilities are present in this case. Ronnie was not a federal officer, and the murder took place outside on the side of a road. There is no sign of there being any action between states. Unless the park was federal land (doubtful, except as a 'No-Prize' excuse for federal jurisdiction), this case ought to be tried in a court of the state in which the murder took place.

Even if federal jurisdiction were proper, it's unlikely that it would be proper in the Central District of California. Based on the events of IC #5 and Firestorm #1, Ronnie's death probably took place somewhere near Detroit, or at least in the upper midwest. Proper venue would be in the district the crime took place in, not half a continent away. Venue can be transferred at the defendant's request if the prosecution agrees, or if the court finds the first venue to be unfairly prejudicial or inconvenient. None of those appear to be the case here. Sands has nothing to gain and everything to lose by moving his case so it can be handled by an LA "star prosecutor" (though judging by her work in this issue, I don't know how Kate got that reputation).

Kate's first witness is Hawkman. That's her first mistake. Hawkman wasn't present when Firestorm was killed. He doesn't have any firsthand knowledge of the murder. As a witness in a murder case, he's pretty useless. That Kate only asks him two questions sorta proves this.

Her first question of the entire trial is "Is it true that Carl Sands used stolen technology from the planet Thanagar in his identity as the Shadow Thief?" This should have elicited an objection from the defense. For starters, it's a leading question, strongly implying the answer that Kate wants Hawkman to give (ie, "yes, it is true"). The question also claims that Sands committed the criminal act of stealing the shadow belt. Prior criminal acts are typically not admissible as evidence, and while there are exceptions (such as to show motive or opportunity), this use doesn't seem to fit any of them. So both her question and Hawkman's answer are objectionable on that basis as well, as is Hawkman's "When he wasn't trying to kill me" comment in his second answer.

(Continuity sidebar: Both Kate's question and Hawkman's answer contradict the Shadow Thief's Post-Crisis origin. John Ostrander established that the Dimensiometer Belt was used for spaceship repair, not police work, and was given to Carl Sands by Byth. Unless these details have been retconned, Kate's question becomes even more objectionable, as it suggests he committed a crime that he, in fact, did not. And Hawkman's answer is perjurious.)

Both questions should probably have elicited objections over their relevance to the murder charge, but I can't say how the judge would have ruled because I'm unsure of what Kate was trying to prove with them. As a juror, I'd be wondering why the opening witness had nothing to say about any murder, and thus calling Hawkman first was, at best, poor trial tactics.

It's during Hawkman's direct testimony that we get our one look at Carl Sands in the courtroom, dressed in orange prison garb and sitting in a tube. No one goes to trial in a prison outfit; it's too prejudicial to the defendant for the jury to see him dressed like a felon. A good lawyer would have him well-groomed and dressed in a suit. And I don't know what purpose the tube serves, unless Sands has retained his Neron-induced powers (in which case Hawkman's testimony about the shadow belt seems even more irrelevant).

Now for Hawkman's cross-examination. Again, just two questions, and both are objectionable. The first because it appears to be totally irrelevant (and even if defense attorney Logan had a good reason that I'm missing, Kate still should have jumped to her feet). The second is worse. Logan clearly wants to impeach Hawkman's credibility, and one way to do that is with evidence of a prior conviction. But Hawkman was never convicted, and evidence of a mere arrest is inadmissible. If there was only one objection in this entire issue, it should have been to this question. So what do we see Kate do? Does she jump up and object? No. She looks at the hero and thinks "Deep breaths, Hawkman."

Hawkman is also a terrible witness, to fly off the handle and damage the witness stand after a question he doesn't like. Kate's co-counsel says "It could have been worse." The prosecution began its case with a useless witness, asked him objectionable and irrelevant questions, failed to object to defense questions, and then had their witness threaten defense counsel. I suppose it could've been worse if he'd beat up a juror.

OK, now on to the second witness, Superman. We finally get an objection, but I'll leave it to someone with federal experience to call this one. But I'm inclined to guess that either the defense attorney or the judge, one of them, is wrong. In any case, Mr. Logan demonstrates a marked lack of professionalism with his final "Hmmph--No, sir." A good lawyer always, always says "Thank you" in response to a judge's ruling, regardless of who won. The grunt is totally out-of-line, and many judges would likely reprimand the attorney right then and there for it.

Superman's an even more useless witness than Hawkman was. Not only does he know nothing about the crime, but he has nothing to say about the defendant either. It's hard to tell with the flashback sequence, but it looks like Kate only asked one question, prompting a lengthy response from Superman about how swell Firestorm was. That's a narrative response, which is objectionable.

More importantly, Superman's testimony is entirely about the character of the victim. "Firestorm already had the heart of a hero," etc. Character evidence is typically off-limits during a criminal trial, because it encourages the jury to make decisions based on reputations rather than facts. The prosecution can't introduce character evidence of the accused unless the defense has already called the victim's character into question. That sure didn't happen during Hawkman's testimony. When we're shown Mr. Logan muttering "Crap" under his breath, we just don't see him thinking "Crap, I'm a lousy attorney."

I'm not sure what to make of Mr. Logan's cross-examination of Superman, other than to say that it seems to be just as pointless as his first cross. He's trying to impeach Supes' credibility, but why? Is he hoping to hang his defense on the notion that Firestorm wasn't a swell guy? Is he trying to play on the jury's prejudices against superheroes and secret identities? Does he hope to play the Astro City card and claim that Firestorm isn't really dead? Mr. Logan's questions should at least be eliciting objections from Ms. Spencer, even if she loses them, but she does nothing. Even when Mr. Logan starts rambling without asking another question, she still refuses to object, opting instead to grimace and angle her eyebrows.

That's about it for this issue. I could talk about the secret identity issue, but that's a whole article unto itself. I suspect the courtroom is laid out wrong, but we never get a distant enough angle to be certain. I could point out that Sands appears to have ended up on trial within weeks of the murder, but I'm willing to forgive that for the sake of the medium. No one wants to wait two years for the Shadow Thief's trial (like we waited for the trial of Kobra in JSA, which I plan to rip apart sooner or later). But this issue basically boils down to Kate being an incompetent prosecutor. Unless she can start producing evidence that says or suggests "Carl Sands killed Ronnie Raymond," she might as well give up now.

(And a shout-out to silogramsam for beating me to the punch on analyzing this issue. Good work.)