A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Eye of Agamotto Commands You To Confess!

One scene I glossed over from She-Hulk #2 was the Dr. Strange cameo. As it presents a neat little legal question, and had nothing to do with the rest of the issue, I wanted to talk about it separately.

Dr. Strange is seen in a small meeting at the office of Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg and Holliway. It seems that one of the firm's clients, Nicholas Wilkes, was arrested for stealing Strange's Wand of Watoomb. The police found the Wand on him when he was arrested, and he confessed to the crime after being read his Miranda rights.

However, the guy's lawyer, Mallory Book, points out that Wilkes was still under the influence of Strange's Eye of Agamotto. Presumably, this means he couldn't help but tell the truth. The cop then learns that Book has gone to the D.A. and gotten the charges dropped.

Involuntary truthfulness isn't something our courts commonly deal with, but it presents an interesting dilemma in supernatural law. How would the courts rectify the Constitutional right to remain silent with the physical inability to lie, and possibly the irresistable compulsion to confess?

First, a little familiar legal background. The Constitution guarantees us, among other things, the right against unreasonable searches and seizues and the right to not be compelled to be a witness against oneself (aka, the right to remain silent). For a long time, American law struggled with what to do when these Constitutional rights were violated when the state was gathering evidence against a person in a criminal matter. Rather than leave it up to civil suits between the individual and the police, the Court created the Exclusionary Rule. If evidence was gathered through an illegal search, or a confession obtained through force, then that evidence was excluded from use at trial. Law & Order invokes the Exclusionary Rule at least once per episode, although its judges are a little more happy to exclude evidence than real-life judges are.

So that's what we have at play here. A confession, obtained by police from a properly Mirandized defendant, and the confessor subsequently claiming that his statement was involuntary due to mystical influence. Was his right to remain silent violated? Does the Exclusionary Rule apply to his confession?

My first thought was to compare it to situations when the police interrogate a suspect who is intoxicated or high, and consequently has his mental defenses lowered. So long as it wasn't the officers who induced the intoxication, such confessions are often admissible.

But that didn't seem satisfactory. The evaluation of drunken confessions turns a lot on whether the confessor intelligently understood the legal consequences of the statements he was making. Moreover, a person who is drunk or high enough to not appreciate their situation is likely noticably drunk or high to the interrogating officer. So when the questioning is taking place, the officer is fully aware that he's more or less taking advantage of the person's condition.

Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding our Dr. Strange thief are somewhat different. We aren't provided with all of the details, but it doesn't sound like the Eye rendered Mr. Wilkes stupid; merely truthful. And based on Book's comments, it sounds like the detective had no idea whatsoever that Wilkes was under the Eye's influence.

I ended up stumbling across a surprisingly useful Supreme Court case, Colorado v. Connelly. In the case, Francis Connelly approached a police officer one day and confessed to having killed a man. The officer gave Connelly his Miranda warnings, and made sure that he understood what he was saying, but Connelly insisted that he wanted to clear his conscience and confess.

Connelly was eventually diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, and before trial his attorneys motioned to have all of his confessions excluded. The state courts agreed, saying that his confessions with "involuntary" and lacked "free will."

If that's where the story stopped, and where our caselaw stood today, I could say with a fair degree of certainty that Eye of Agamotto-compelled confessions would be similarly suppressed. But the story didn't stop there, as the case was appealed again to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the state's reliance on the presence of "free will" in confessions. Rather, the Court said that for a confession to be "involuntary," there must be police coercion. The Constitution's provisions are there to protect the individual from the state, and the Exclusionary Rule exists to more or less punish the state when it oversteps its authority. When the police didn't push the defendant to confess, and didn't even have reason to know why he was willing to confess, then that doesn't fit the purpose of the Exclusionary Rule.

I think it's the same with the Eye of Agamotto. The police didn't force the guy to tell the truth, and they probably had no idea about the Eye or its influence. Without any misconduct on the part of the police, the Eye-induced confession would probably be admissible. But it would be a whole different story if the police had Dr. Strange cast a truth spell on suspects during interrogation.

Finally, I have a couple of residual comments on the scene. The persons in the meeting appear to be the defendant, the defense attorney, Dr. Strange, and a police officer. That's an unusual group to be meeting before a trial, and even more unusual when we're told that the charges have already gone away. So what was the meeting for? More importantly, the D.A.'s decision to drop the charges is grossly premature. Challenges to the voluntariness of confessions are handled at so-called 'Jackson v. Denno Hearings,' named for the case that established them. Both sides present their arguments to a judge, who decides whether the confessions is allowable. It's pure surrender for the prosecutor to just drop the case because the confession was challenged, especially when the law favors the state.