A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Friday, September 02, 2005

JSA #76: The Trial of Atom Smasher

JSA #76 by Geoff Johns and Don Kramer

"Albert Rothstein has been charged with violations of international criminal law in causing death, injury and destruction during Black Adam's invasion of Kahndaq. Despite the interference of the D.E.O. and various heroes speaking out on Rothstein's behalf, the trial of Atom Smasher was set to begin this morning at ten o'clock.

"The courtroom has been closed off from the media and the meta-human community...in addition, just minutes ago, all witnesses for the prosecution and defense have been released before testimony. Why is anyone's guess."

That's from a news reporter on the first page of JSA #76. On the second page, one character notes that only a month has passed since Al was brought back to the U.S. at the end of #75. So whereas Kobra's trial took forever to happen, Al's was apparently put in the express lane.

Now where to begin...

The concept of "international criminal law" is a bit hazy. Most formalized international law deals with state actors, and not private individuals. And if such an international code exists in the DCU, then Atom Smasher would be on trial in a 'International Criminal Court' (like one that is currently proposed), and not in a New York federal courthouse.

However, the U.S. does have various federal statutes that could probably apply to the essentially mercenary actions that Atom Smasher engaged in. For instance, if an American citizen murders a foreign official outside of U.S. borders, the U.S. courts can still have jurisdiction over that crime. So let's assume that's what the reporter was referring to. There's still some potential trouble with this approach, but at least it gets us into a US courthouse.

There are a number of problems with the trial as presented, but most of them could have been avoided with a simple change in terminology: this should have been Atom Smasher's arraignment, not his trial.

Before a criminal trial can take place, there is a series of pre-trial procedures. First, since this is a federal trial, there will be a grand jury indictment. The prosecutor presents evidence to the grand jury, and if they're persuaded that the accused probably committed the crime, then they issue an indictment on the specific charges. Second, there is an arraignment, in which the defendant is formally notified of the charges against him, and during which he makes his plea of 'guilty' or 'not guilty.' Then there are various other little motions and hearings, and the trial comes at the end.

On page three, we're shown Al in the courtroom, as he issues a 'Guilty' plea:

As you see, he's cuffed and in jail clothes. It also appears that his attorney didn't bring a briefcase or much of any paperwork, making him look rather unprepared for a major trial. It was already said on page one that Al turned himself in to the authorities as soon as he returned to the U.S., and later in the issue, as he's being led into a police vehicle, Al tells his teammates "I'm finally doing something right...I'm standing up for what I believe in...Justice."

All of this makes infinitely more sense in the context of an arraignment than in a trial. The clothes and cuffs are commonplace at arraignments, and there's very little paperwork involved. The month-long timetable given is much more believable for an arraignment than a full trial.

But more importantly, if Al truly felt remorse over his actions, and wanted to "stand up for what [he] believes in," then the arraignment would have been the ideal time to plead guilty. If he made it all the way to trial, that means he pled 'Not Guilty' at the arraignment, and forced both his attorney and the prosecution to spend weeks preparing for a case that didn't happen. Granted, last-minute guilty pleas happen all the time, but Al is presented as someone who has had a heavy conscience since the moment he returned to the States. There's no reason for him to drag the proceedings out if he always wanted to "do something right" and plead guilty.

Plus, as an arraignment, it could have avoided the page one scene with some of the little flubs I quoted above. Cameras are always excluded from federal criminal cases, but the entire media cannot be excluded. And in a major trial, "all witnesses for the prosecution and defense" are not all present at the same time. Instead, they are more or less scheduled as needed to appear.

Besides, I'm not sure how anyone was planning to use the various JSAers to prove their case. If he's charged with Muhunnad's murder, none of them saw him kill Muhunnad, or ever saw the dead dictator's body. None of them could testify that Al was the one who even did the killing (although if someone could produce the body, the size 68 bootprint on it would be persuasive evidence). The Atom would have been a pretty good witness, since he observed some of the fallout, but alas, he's not around. On the other hand, if Al is charged with some other crime, maybe their testimony would play into it.

That's it for the 'trial' itself, so now for the laughable part. After pleading guilty, Atom Smasher is led by two police officers down the front steps of the courthouse to a police van parked in the street. Other officers are holding back the media, who are standing only a few feet away. And there are also plenty of protesters nearby.

In other words, the security at this DCU courthouse is ridiculously absurd. Instead of keeping the prisoner in closed quarters, and taking him from the courthouse along a secured route, they walk him out the front door, into the open and alongside dozens of reporters and supporters. And Atom Smasher proves moments later that he's completely capable of breaking his cuffs and escaping. Why does Johns have officers treating a prisoner so unusually? Because it's essential to the nine-page 'The OMAC Project' Crossover fight that immediately follows (follow the link for my rant about how the issue was 2/3's 'Infinite Crisis' crossover material).

The last couple of pages take the action to good ol' Belle Reve Prison. Its given location, Terrebonne Parish (the issue misspells it as Terrebone), is in southern Louisiana, and was one of the areas hit hard by Hurricane Katrina earlier this week. The parish (which was also the setting of the recent movie "The Skeleton Key") is highlighted on this map: