A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Astro City: The Trial of the Silver Agent

Recent issues of Astro City: The Dark Age finally revealed the fate of the Silver Agent. He was expertly framed for murder, convicted, and executed before the truth came to light.

We didn't see much of the Silver Agent's trial, and his legal experience is only specifically addressed in a handful of panels over three issues. But it's enough to make a couple of points.

We see the Silver Agent's "crime" on the opening page of Astro City: The Dark Age #2, as the Agent shoots the "Mad Maharajah" of Maga-Dhor in Paris, while yelling "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (the words famously spoken by John Wilkes Booth before he shot Lincoln; personally, I thought that was enough to suggest something was screwy). In the subsequent attempt to subdue the Agent, two American security officers were killed.

It's mentioned later in the issue that the Agent briefly escaped custody while "being held pending trial in an international court." I'm not absolutely certain (given that this involves early '70s international law), but I don't think that's very likely, if it's possible at all. International criminal law, even today, tends toward extreme offenses, like war crimes and genocide. A mere murder, even if it's an assassination of a national leader, is territory for a nation's courts, whether it be the nation of the victim, the offender, or the state where the act took place.

And that's what happens, because the Silver Agent ends up being tried and convicted in an American federal court. That's perfectly fair, because the US has jurisdiction over both the Maharajah's murder as well as the deaths of the two American officers.

In the Maharajah's case, he is an "internationally protected person," and the Agent is an American national, so jurisdiction exists. As for the two officers, there we have the foreign murder of American nationals. (It's never actually said if the officers' murders were among the charges, but they'd be fair nonetheless.)

There's a little matter of timing. As illustrated by the newspaper story linked to above, the Silver Agent was convicted in February 1973, and all indications point to him being executed not too long thereafter.

In the real world, the death penalty did not exist in the United States between 1972 and 1976. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that execution constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Some states continued to hand out death penalty sentences, but the carrying out of those sentences was not permitted until the Supreme Court's 1976 decision Gregg v. Georgia re-opened the door for executions.

And even then, the federal death penalty was not revived until 1988. Not that the federal government executes a lot of people anyway; they didn't execute anyone between Victor Feguer in 1963 and Timothy McVeigh in 2001. There have been two federal executions since McVeigh's, though.

Also, the story makes a couple of references to the Silver Agent's separate sentencing hearing, after the jury had convicted him of murder. While that is the way death penalty cases are always handled today (take note, other writers), I don't believe such bifurcated trials were approved until the 1976 Gregg case.

I could try to argue that this contradicts the depiction of the death penalty in Astro City, but I don't think it does. In a world of psychotic costumed killers, it's easy to imagine a Supreme Court that never handed down the Furman decision. Given the changing public opinion of superheroes that the story depicts, there would surely have been the political pressure to employ the rarely-utilized federal penalty. And in a country that never abandoned the death penalty altogether, it's readily conceivable that they could have made some procedural advances a few years before we did.

Anyhow, the issues correctly refer to the potential for requesting clemency from the President. Since this involves a federal crime, it would have been wrong to talk about getting a pardon from a governor. And I think I've said before that I liked seeing the Agent on trial in his real identity, and not sitting there masked in court, with the court addressing him by his superhero name.

The biggest question I have about the trial relates to what we saw nothing of, and that was the Silver Agent's defense. His other actions, including his refusal to appeal or to seek clemency, play into the story's hints that the Silver Agent thought he needed to die. But I'm still naturally curious about what his lawyer did at trial. Did they point out the Agent's seeming total lack of motive? His odd 'possessed' behavior at the scene? Maybe the only reason it went to trial at all was because you can't plead to the death penalty. But that's all my own obsessiveness; Kurt had another story to tell, and I daresay a more interesting one.