A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Manhunter #1: The Trial of Copperhead

A commenter asked about how well the law was handled in the first Manhunter storyline. So I flipped through a copy at the shop, and I can now say: a little better than the Shadow Thief story, but not much.

In large part, that's because there's really not much a trial shown. All we're shown is closing arguments and the verdict. There's simply less room to be wrong. But those pages have about as much bad law as they can hold.

Of course, the case against Copperhead is in federal court, but this time it's OK. Copperhead committed his murders during a bank robbery, and federal courts have jurisdiction over bank robberies. So long as the bank was in Kate's district, this case is perfectly within the scope of her office.

Unfortunately, one of the federal details that is gotten correct in the Sands trial is done incorrectly here. When the verdict is read, the case's name is given as "The People of California v. Copperhead." That would be correct for a state case, but federal criminal cases are "United States v. ______." It should also use the defendant's legal name and not an alias, but I don't believe any writer ever stated Copperhead's real name.

We're dropped into the story as Kate and Copperhead's defense attorney are giving their closing arguments, but I couldn't tell what they were the closing arguments *for*. Kate tells the jury that Copperhead deserves to die, and the other guy claims that his client is compelled to murder because of the meta-gene.

Death penalty cases have two phases. The first is your standard old 'guilty-or-not-guilty' trial phase, also called the fact-finding phase. The defendant is charged with committing a certain murderous act (since murder is the only crime that gets the death penalty), and the jury has to decide the question of whether the defendant actually committed the act. It's a factual determination: did he or didn't he?

If the jury acquits the defendant, then the trial is over and everybody goes home. If the jury convicts, then they move on to the sentencing phase. It's sorta like a second mini-trial, but with a lot of aggravating and mitigating evidence that wasn't allowed in the first time because it wasn't really relevant to the "did he do it" question. The prosecutor tells the jurors that the defendant beats up puppies and orphans in his spare time, and the defense attorney stresses that his client goes to church every Sunday and helped raise his three little sisters after his mom ran off with the milkman. The jury sees home movies, hears lots of character evidence, and gets all sorts of criminal history details. This is the time that the victim's family would take the stand to talk about how much they miss the deceased. And the prosecutor also has the burden of proving some sort of aggravating factor that merits the death penalty. The question asked of the jury is not whether the defendant *did* the crime, but rather, having already established that he did do it, whether he deserves to die.

So is Manhunter #1 showing us the end of the trial phase, or the end of the sentencing phase? That depends on where you want your errors to be.

Read Kate's closing for yourself (see if you can spot the two or three errors about Copperhead in the courtroom). If this is a closing argument for the sentencing phase, it's actually pretty good. Kate stresses the gruesomeness of the crime, the impact on the victims, and the continued threat that Copperhead would pose to society if allowed to live. And she closes by saying, "There is but one verdict you can arrive at: Death." It's an effective argument that snake-guy needs to take the eternal celestial dirt nap.

If, on the other hand, this is supposed to be the end of the trial phase, then Kate probably just bought herself a mistrial. Calling the victim "a metagene-amplied serial killer," and warning "he has killed again and again without mercy or compunction," are prohibited statements. Those are prior criminal acts (which he may or may not actually have been convicted of), and if this is the fact-finding phase, Kate is asking the jury to find Copperhead guilty of the bank murders because he'd committed murders before. Bad form, and virtually guaranteed to win a strong objection and a mistrial.

Plus, while her comments are well-scripted for a sentencing phase closing, they're largely out of place in a trial closing. "For the safety of your neighbors" is a plea for punishment, not for factual guilt. She makes absolutely no effort to rebut the defense argument discussed below. And Kate would properly finish her trial closing with a request for a verdict of "guilty," not "death."

(Kate also appears to be poor with math, which isn't terribly uncommon for lawyers. "Twelve dead. Three in persistive vegetative states. Two with severe PTSD in addition to their missing limbs... Fifteen lives shattered by the defendant." 12 + 3 + 2 = 15?)

After Kate is finished, the defense attorney makes his closing argument. (This is probably wrong too, since prosecutors usually get the final word, but I'll need somebody else to back me up on the federal rule.) And practically the first words out of his mouth are to tell the jury that there's no question that Copperhead actually committed the murders he's charged with.

Usually, defense attorneys don't begin their closing arguments at trial by saying 'Let's be honest, clearly my client massacred those people...'

Then again, it's not like he had much room to argue that Copperhead was truly innocent. Kate did just show a videotape of his client ripping the victims' limbs off. He goes on, telling the jury why Copperhead shouldn't be held to account for murders he clearly committed because of the metagene. He closes with a request for a verdict of "not guilty."

If this is a sentencing phase, then the defense attorney should be asking for some punishment other than death (e.g. incarceration or commitment), and probably not a "not guilty" verdict. But the rest of his comments could potentially fit either phase. This 'metagene' argument sounds analogous to the Irresistible Impulse version of the insanity defense: "My client did it, but he shouldn't be held responsible because he couldn't stop himself." (Incidentally, the American Psychiatric Association does not endorse this test.) I don't believe this is a terribly successful defense, and I think it'd be hard for the defense attorney to meet his burden of showing this impulse. But given the videotape, there weren't exactly a lot of available options for defense strategy here.

But the jury inexplicably hands down a "not guilty" verdict, leading me to suspect that the L.A. of the DCU is just as crazy as our L.A. The judge then issues some orders about where Copperhead should be held until some permanent arrangement is made. A person found not guilty by reason of insanity is typically committed to a mental hospital, so it makes sense that a parallel treatment would be true following a not guilty by reason of the metagene verdict.

So is this the guilt or sentencing phase of the trial? Courtroom drama usually focuses on the guilt phase, and here that's supported by the "not guilty" talk and verdict, as well as the overall tenor of the defense attorney's closing. On the other hand, Kate's closing is utter dreck for a trial closing but perfect for a sentencing closing. I suspect that this was intended to be the end of the regular trial (as is strongly evidenced by the defense attorney's boasting of his "win" in #6), but Kate comes off looking a lot better the other way 'round. Not only does she avoid a mistrial if these are sentencing phase closing arguments, but it means that she actually won the guilt phase of the trial.