A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Monday, February 20, 2006

(Don't) Show Some Restraint

One of my recurring gripes about courtroom scenes in comics has been the illustration of defendants in shackles and prison garb. As some of you may recall, the problem with shackles and restraints on a defendant is that it sends a rather strong and extremely negative message to the jurors. Being restrained at the defense table doesn't exactly help with the "innocent until proven guilty" aspect of court.

That said, if a defendant has demonstrated an inability to restrain himself in the courtroom, the judge can take certain actions in response. The court is not required to abide an unruly and openly dangerous defendant. After all, creating a scene in front of the jurors probably means the unbiased ship has already sailed.

But supervillains can create a unique situation that isn't paralleled in the real world. A defendant would never be allowed into a courtroom armed, but any given metahuman is inherently armed. There's an unacceptable danger in allowing a criminal defendant who can fire deadly energy bolts from his hands to sit, unemcumbered, in a room full of people deciding his fate.

So what is a court to do? The defendant has a Constitutional right to participate in his trial, so excluding him upfront is out of the question. But restraining him violates his right to an impartial jury. And it can't allow a defendant who could kill the judge or prosecutor with a glance to have the freedom to do so.

The reason I bring all of this up now is that there was the hint of an answer to this problem presented in a recent Newsweek article. A bunch of prosecutors have put together an organized effort to take down the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, and this is going to entail putting a lot of really, REALLY nasty guys on trial. It seems they have a well-established predilection for courtroom violence, but the prosecutors already have a means of taking care of it.

After a six-year investigation, now comes the next challenge for law enforcement: how to hold a fair trial while protecting the lives of the judge, jurors, witnesses and lawyers in the courtroom. Five years ago an Aryan Brotherhood member on trial broke free of his handcuffs, seized a television and hurled it at the judge. Another stabbed his own attorney with a metal shank he'd smuggled into the courthouse.

Prosecutors acknowledge they're taking a risk by bringing so many of the men into a courtroom together, but they say they have no choice. "There really was an idea that it should be a body blow against the gang," says a government employee close to the case who requested anonymity because the judge asked all participants not to speak to the press. The defendants will be tried in small groups at Santa Ana, Calif.'s federal courthouse, in a tiered courtroom built especially for high-threat cases. Federal marshals won't discuss security details, but attorneys confirm that the defendants' shackles will be bolted to the floor, their restraints hidden from the jury by panels.

It's a simple, yet ingenious, solution. The problem with restraining a defendant is the negative message it sends to the jurors when they see it. Thus, the easiest way around that is to make sure the jurors don't see it.

I suppose it's possible that the defense could still object to this treatment, particularly since it's being based on something akin to a 'guilt by association' expectation. But given the circumstances and history of these guys, I think the court might have struck a good balance. It protects the defendant's rights as well as the courtroom's safety.

And it's a policy that could be naturally extended to metahuman defendants. They just have to be restrained in ways that the jury can't see. Mental-power dampeners, for instance. It might require some imaginative mechanisms, but it's a possibility.