A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Puttin' on the Ritz

When I went to the comic shop this past week, there were not one but two issues waiting in my box that featured criminal trials. One was the trial of Atom Smasher in JSA #76, and the other was the long-awaited trial of the Silver Agent in Astro City: The Dark Age #2. I'll be addressing the former in a future post (or two), but both contained a particular image that irked me.

I've talked before about comics showing criminal defendants wearing jailhouse jumpsuits at trial. Barring the ignorant and/or foolish defendant, this doesn't happen in the real world. They may not dress well (and in fact, they often fail to appreciate the importance of looking presentable to a jury), but the state cannot force the defendant to appear at trial in jail clothes. And it's even older law that the state cannot shackle or restrain the defendant at trial, unless the defendant cannot otherwise control himself.

Have you ever seen a trial scene on "Law & Order" where the defendant was wearing jail clothes? No. In fact, the defendants are often well-dressed, because they're reasonably intelligent and their attorneys are typically shrewd. Murder trials are serious deals, and any decent defense attorney is going to make sure his client looks as good as possible in court.

But when Kobra goes on trial for murder:

or the Shadow Thief:

they look, to the jury, like criminals. Because they're dressed like criminals. It's the same problem in both issues I bought this week. Here we see Atom Smasher at trial:

and the Silver Agent:

In all fairness, there's a small loophole in the Silver Agent case. Various state courts rejected compelling defendants to wear jail clothes at trial as early as 1946. But it looks like the Supreme Court didn't weigh in on the issue until 1976, and the Silver Agent's trial is set in 1972. It would mean that Astro City was behind the times, and that the defense attorney didn't do a better job of protecting his client's interests in a life-and-death case, but it's still legally possible.

(In fact, I'm a little curious where the Silver Agent's attorney is. The narration describes the prosecutor making an opening statement, so presumably that's who is shown. I guess he's blocking our view of the defense attorney at the table behind him.)

But as for Atom Smasher, he's not only wearing the jumpsuit (I wonder where they got one in his size), but handcuffs as well. Double wrong.

There is one good thing I can say about all these comic book trials, and it's that at least the defendants are being tried as "Carl Sands" and "Al Rothstein" and so on. They're not wearing their costumes in court and it's their real identities, and not their costumed identities, that are on trial. This is a welcome improvement over the old 'Trial of the Flash,' where a costumed Flash was on trial for several issues before there was a sudden revelation of his true identity.

But the thing with the jail clothes ought to end. If the scene is some sort of pretrial hearing (and frankly, those don't get shown in comics very often, because they're dull), jail clothes are OK for a defendant who's being held in jail. But if it's a trial, then jail clothes and restraints are a huge no-no. It's a simple and universal rule, and it is oh-so-easily avoidable by artists. Just draw the defendant in a suit and tie. It's that easy.