A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Manhunter #21: The Trial of Dr. Psycho

It's been a long time since I got to review an issue of Manhunter. For a series that stars a lawyer, it's been somewhat light on the legalisms since the Shadow Thief's trial met an early end. This issue shipped back in April, at which time I started but failed to complete this post. Now that the arc has ended, it seems apropos to finish the job.

It's One Year Later, and not only is Kate back in the courtroom, but she's switched teams. That's right, former federal prosecutor Kate Spencer is now a dirty rotten pinko defense attorney. And her client is that pint-sized pervert Dr. Psycho.

It seems that during the events of Infinite Crisis #7, Dr. Psycho got a little perturbed at a group of villains called The Hangmen. So he took control of the minds of 16 nearby civilians, and made them murder the Hangmen in rather graphic fashion. Now, One Year Later, he's on trial for murder. This issue's courtroom scenes focus on Kate's handling of two of the state's witnesses, a woman who was one of Psycho's 16 psychic victims and, as indicated by the cover, Dr. Mid-Nite.

First, maybe I got the wrong impression, but this trial seems to have one of the same flaws that the Shadow Thief's trial did, and that's venue. There is no doubt that the Hangmen's murders took place in Metropolis. Yet Dr. Psycho appears to be on trial in Los Angeles. Why? When Kate was a federal prosecutor, that conceit necessitated that cases she handled ended up in L.A. courtrooms. But defense attorneys can go anywhere.

Admittedly, there may be good reason to move the trial out of Metropolis. The supervillain attack from IC #7 could certainly give rise to some extreme bias on the part of the locals, and if I remember correctly, Psycho himself made a visit to Metropolis in the pages of Action Comics some months earlier. Given those events, it's believable that Dr. Psycho might not be able to get a fair trial in Metropolis.

But moving the trial clear to the other side of the country? That's not necessary, and it creates a burden in moving witnesses and evidence. The only good reason to locate the trial in Los Angeles is that it's convenient for Kate's supporting cast.

Most of the courtroom action in this issue focuses on Kate's cross-examination of two of the prosecution's witnesses. The first is a woman who was among the 16 civilians who were mind-controlled into killing the Hangmen. On direct examination she gives her account of being mentally pushed to murder. When Kate cross-examines her, though, it turns out that the woman has a bit of a history of mental illness and paranoia. By and large, Kate does an OK job of impeaching the witness and making the jury question her credibility.

Unfortunately for Kate, there are still presumably 15 or so other civilians who were similarly mind-controlled (I can't recall if any of the others were killed in the fracas). Sure, Kate managed to impugn the credibility of one victim, but what's her gameplan for the rest? Even if she succeeds in concocting different excuses for them all, the mere presence of a parade of witnesses saying "I was mind-controlled to murder" lends a certain credence to the allegation that some mind-control occurred.

The second witness is Dr. Mid-Nite, who appears, naturally, in full superheroic outfit. Scott evaluated the medical aspects of Mid-Nite's testimony back when the issue shipped, and had some qualms with the medicine as presented. I find myself a little curious why Kate didn't make an issue out of the fact that the doctor is, after all, blind. If I was in her role as the defense attorney, playing every card I had, I'd definitely dwell on how well Mid-Nite can perceive brain scans when he can only see them through light-manipulating goggles. I'm also a little curious how, in the midst of the Metropolis battle, those 16 people had brain scans done within a few hours.

Kate makes the very good point in cross-examination that the DCU is filled with telepathic persons (and monkeys), so residual evidence of mind-control doesn't necessarily point to Dr. Psycho. I expect that mind-control law would have a rather harsh evolution, since it's a crime that leaves little residual evidence (and I do rather like the suggestion here that it leaves some), it's liable to occur with no witnesses, the victim himself might not even observe his 'attacker,' and the inherent nature of the crime means that the victim's perception (as well as that of any witnesses) is naturally suspect and potentially unreliable.

It's that last factor that's most critical. The other factors show up in real-life crimes all the time, but the closest we get to the last one is in cases of stolen or mistaken identity. Here, the mere presence of mind-control means that there's automatically the strong potential for a frame-up. If Dr. Psycho had been more cunning, he wouldn't have made a public display of his attack on the Hangmen. Instead, he'd have hidden himself, controlled his victims from the shadows, and then left them all with the mental impression that a certain gorilla was the one who'd been controlling them. There would even be a couple of witnesses who would come forward and swear they saw Grodd standing there and yelling the whole time. When there's no physical evidence that can point back to the culprit, and any testimonial evidence is deemed unreliable, then you'd almost just have to hope that somebody was videotaping the scene and caught the perp on camera.

Since mind-control breaks so many of our real-world laws of causality, then it might be posited that the law would utilize similar paranormal abilities in response. Perhaps another telepath could tell who had been the offender, or whether memories had been manipulated. The courts would adapt somehow, but how it would be accomplished would be highly speculative.