A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

She-Hulk #2: The Trial of Charles Czarkowski

And now, the much-delayed review of the first trial of the new She-Hulk series. To recap, billionaire Charles Czarkowski received a message from a man in the future, who said that he was going to kill Czarkowski. Czarkowski shot his supposed assailant, John Doe, who was unarmed at the time, and his act was captured by a nearby photographer. He's now on trial for attempted murder, his attorney is Jen "She-Hulk" Walters, and he is pleading self-defense.

A commenter in the replies to the last thread, trilobite, has already pointed out a few problems presented in this issue. Trilobite offered up a particularly good criticism relating to Jen's first witness, wherein Jen seemingly interrupts the prosecution's case to call a witness of her own, and one who probably shouldn't have been allowed to testify to start with.

The first oddity of the trial shows up in its very first panel. We see the prosecutor giving his opening statement, and behind him is projected a 5-foot-tall image of the photograph of Czarkowski shooting his victim.

This presents a legal problem and a practical one. The legal problem is that the photo is evidence. Evidence that is supposed to be introduced and shown to the jury during the trial. If a photo of the crime exists, the jury is never going to see it during opening statements. Even if the defense stipulated to the photo (as Jen states in the next panel), it's just plain foolish to allow the jury's first impression of the defendant to be an image of him committing the crime in question. The defense is giving itself a hole that it will have to dig out of. In fact, it is so likely to bias the jury, that if convicted, there's a chance the defendant could get a retrial on this alone.

The practical problem is plot-based: after going to all the trouble of pulling jurors out of the past who would be untainted by the photo, why is it that the very first thing the jurors see in this case is that same photo? Doesn't this defeat the whole purpose of manipulating the space-time continuum for the sake of a jury pool?

The prosecution's seemingly only witness is the medical examiner, who testifies that John Doe was shot in the back. But he also says "[T]here was no way [John Doe] could have posed an imminent threat." This should have brought a massive objection from Jen, because the medical examiner is stating a legal conclusion, and is testifying on a matter that is far outside the scope of his knowledge. Stating legal conclusions is a big no-no for witnesses. The question of whether a threat existed (or, at least, whether Czarkowski reasonably believed there was one) is for the jury to decide; it's definitely not within the scope of the medical examiner, who merely examined the victim's body. How could a medical exam possibly tell him whether or not a threat existed?

By this point in the trial, we've seen a couple of references to the 22 days that have passed between the shooting and the trial. Clearly, the court system in the Marvel Universe works at a ridiculously fast pace. So fast, in fact, that it would seem that Jen and Pug only had about two weeks to prepare their entire defense, if not less, for this major murder case. And unlike, say, the trial of the Shadow Thief in Manhunter, there's no editorial need to pretend that a trial could happen that fast. 22 days is just an absurdly and unnecessarily short time to have passed before trial.

There are some other little things (mostly objectionable questions and narratives on Jen's part, an inappropriate usage of "attorney/client privilege," and much of Jen's second witness), but I'd rather focus on the big legal issue here: Czarkowski's claim of self-defense. Because despite the general feel of the issue, he doesn't have a very strong self-defense case.

Self-defense is what is called an "affirmative defense." That means the burden of proving it falls on the defense, and not on the prosecution. Furthermore, this is an instance of self-defense that involved deadly force. So Czarkowski has the burden of showing that he was in reasonable fear of serious injury or death.

Now consider the circumstances. Czarkowski receives an unsolicited message from a stranger in the future, who says that he is going to travel back in time and kill Czarkowski. There is no accompanying image of the claimed act, no proof that Czarkowski is actually dead at the time the message was sent, and no evidence provided supporting the 'murdering time-traveler' story. There is only the word of the stranger, which pretty much boils down to "I'm going to kill you."

Sounds kind of like a death threat, doesn't it? And how do you think the justice system would react if a person who'd received a death threat responded by attempting to kill the person who sent it? After all, when Czarkowski shot the man who 'threatened' him, the man was unarmed and there was nothing to support the belief that he was. All he had was the word of the stranger himself, and for all Czarkowski knew, the guy could have been lying.

Or to hew a little closer to the story's situation, imagine if a person learned that a hit had been taken out on his life. He learns the identity of his supposed assassin, and where the hit is supposed to take place. Can he claim self-defense if he shoots his alleged hitman in advance? Particularly if the hitman was unarmed at the time? It has a very Old West Justice feel to it, but our modern courts wouldn't much approve of such actions. You might be able to avoid first degree murder charges and serious jail time if your story panned out, but the most you can hope for out of a 'self-defense' claim is that you could plead out to a manslaughter conviction.

Furthermore, in New York, as in other states, a person has a duty to retreat before resorting to deadly force. Czarkowski shot his unarmed 'killer' in the back, in the middle of a crosswalk on a busy street, and before his 'killer' even saw him. He most definitely did not retreat, so a New York court would be inclined to frown on his decision to use deadly force so quickly.

Now admittedly, I come at this from a prosecutor's perspective. My point isn't that Czarkowski's self-defense claim is impossible, but rather that it is seriously flawed. And the ending of the story shows exactly why. As it turns out, the stranger was not telling the truth after all. No one was coming to kill Czarkowski, especially not the stranger who 'confessed' to committing the act. There was no threat, and Czarkowski lacked good reason to believe there was one.