A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Monday, May 09, 2005

Manhunter #6: The Trial of the Shadow Thief, Part 0

"Trial By Fire" Part 1
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artist: Jesus Saiz

With the finale of the Shadow Thief's trial shipping next week, it seemed like a good time to jump back and cover the first issue of the arc. Since the trial itself began in #7, this issue is all build-up. Prosecutor Kate Spencer appears on a talk show, Sands meets with the public defender for the first time, and one fellow gets the job of travelling to the JLA Watchtower to deliver subpoenas.

The issue begins with Kate and the defense attorney from the Copperhead trial appearing on a Larry King-esque talk show. In the three pages we see, they talk a little about the trial, and Kate answers a caller's question about the potential for a plea bargain.

Think back to the O.J. trial. Do you recall Marcia Clark ever doing talk shows before the trial? Did Scott Peterson's prosecutors visit CNN? Have you seen Michael Jackson's prosecutors talking with Larry King? No, no, and no. And similarly, Kate has absolutely no business on a national talk show. She's likely to get into trouble with the Bar for doing so.

Why? Because prosecutors are largely barred by ethics rules from having much to say to the press before a trial. This is to prevent prejudice towards the defendant. There's a short list of things that a prosecutor is entitled to share with the press (e.g. the accused's name, the charges being filed, relevant dates, etc.), and there's also certain comments that are specifically prohibited.

For instance, a prosecutor is not supposed to comment on the character or criminal history of the defendant, or to share anything about potential plea negotiations. So when the caller asks Kate about a plea deal, and Kate replies "Sands has many connections in the supervillain community, so I would, theoretically, be interested in hearing what information he would have to offer," she's violating at least two or three ethics rules. And that's just in answering one caller's question.

After this scene, we see Sands meeting with his attorney, public defender Joshua Logan, for the first time. Based on a comment made earlier, it sounds like Sands is facing the death penalty. It's not unheard of for public defenders to handle death penalty cases, and I don't know the federal standards well enough to say what their specific rules are. But I can share something related regarding my home state.

Here in Georgia, a lawyer cannot defend a death penalty case without having participated in one before. There are a lot of details involved, and the courts don't want a defendant's attorney going in blind. So when the public defender is involved, there are often two defense attorneys: a lead attorney who has been part of a death penalty case before, and a second-chair who hasn't. Thus, by the trial's end, the second-chair attorney is qualified to handle a death penalty case himself. Does that impact this story? Probably not, but you can always check to see what your state's practice is.

Later on, Kate's fellow prosecutor is updating her on trial preparation, saying that they've gotten in the files from St. Roch and some security tapes from banks that Sands robbed, but they're still seeking out Firestorm's real identity. He also raises the question of how to subpoena superhero witnesses.

I'll give Kate's office the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the security tapes from the Shadow Thief's bank heists are for the sentencing phase, following a conviction. Because those things don't stand a chance of ever being introduced at trial. They're irrelevant to the murder case, and they're ridiculously prejudicial to the defendant. But when Kate is trying to convince the jury that the already-convicted Sands deserves to die, rather than merely grow old in prison, the tapes might come in.

"The witnesses, y'know...How in the world are we going to find these guys?"

Subpoeaning superheroes is a fun thought (one I've considered before), and it makes for a neat scene later in the issue. But in re-reading this issue, something else about this line caught my eye.

How did they find the superheroes in order to interview them before trial? Y'know, crimes are supposed to be investigated, and the prosecutors are supposed to build their cases around the facts and statements gathered. If they'd interviewed the superheroes once, it shouldn't be a crisis to contact them again. But Kate's reaction (and expression) suggests that she hasn't done that. And who knows what she's building her case around if she hasn't spoken with any of the witnesses.

In any case, Kate quickly remedies the problem by sending a notice server to the JLA Watchtower. He identifies himself as "Michael Johnson...I work for the federal prosecutor's office in Los Angeles." And then he issues subpoenas to Superman, Batman, and Hawkman (one wonders what he's doing in the Watchtower).

Within the U.S., subpoenas are generally delivered by the U.S. Marshals Service. Outside the U.S., other persons do the job. Is the Watchtower U.S. property or not? I dunno. But subpoenas aren't supposed to be delivered by parties to the case, and it sounds like Mr. Johnson is an employee of the prosecutor's office. It's minor, but it's still a no-no.

We've seen Hawkman and Superman take the stand in the issue that followed, and know that their testimony was worthless. I'm left to wonder what Batman was supposed to offer as a witness either. He didn't see the murder take place, and has no direct knowledge of the crime. Chances are, anything he had to say on the stand would be just as objectionable as what Hawkman and Superman said.

To Bats' credit, though, he disappeared before being given the subpoena, and proper notice requires personal delivery. Giving the subpoena to Superman and saying "Can you make sure Batman gets this for me?" probably doesn't count.

Also on the plus side, Mr. Johnson refers to the case as "United States v. Carl Sands," which is correct for a federal murder case.

What's missing in the whole subpoena fiasco? The people who *ought* to be subpoenaed. We still have three people (Captain Marvel, Shining Knight, and Vixen) who actually witnessed Shadow Thief kill Firestorm, but none of those three are seen. Instead, three objectionable witnesses are subpoenaed. Of course, Mr. Johnson could've served them separately, and if that's the case, then problem solved.
But it does leave a storytelling question: why show the irrelevant witnesses being served instead of the important and crucial ones?

And that's it for this flashback review. I'm not anticipating a lot of law in the arc's final issue, but I'll at least be looking back with some new thoughts on the trial as a whole.