A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

She-Hulk #19: The Trial of the Leader

After a several month dry spell, and right before Peter David takes over the book and drops the legal aspects entirely, Dan Slott treats us to one last superhuman prosecution in She-Hulk #19. This time, it's long-time Hulk villain The Leader who is on trial for, well, pretty much everything he's ever done. Including, perhaps most significantly, his nuking of Middletown, Arizona in The Incredible Hulk #345.

Normally, Arizona crimes don't end up in NYC courtrooms. But this is the Marvel Universe, and since the only two well-known attorneys in the MU live in New York City, pretty much everything ends up in a New York court somehow. (Note how this contrasts with the DCU, where for the last few years, most everything ends up in Kate Spencer's Los Angeles zip code.) The setting is not entirely inexplicable, since it is in a federal court. To be specific, the Sol Brodsky Federal Building, the MU's new "superhuman courthouse." Whatever that entails.

The prosecution successfully, and easily, paints the Leader as a ruthless, evil bastard. We're treated to glimpses of four prosecution witnesses: a Middletown survivor and subject of Leader's experiments; a military officer who responses to Middletown; a woman who was nearly killed when the Leader destroyed a Las Vegas casino; and a woman whose husband died when the Leader commanded him to commit suicide.

I'm pretty sure you can find a federal violation or two in nuking a small American city. Maybe even in destroying a casino. We'll even forgive the notion of several of the Leader's bigger federal crimes being rolled into a single trial. But carjacking and ordering a suicide? I don't see that making its way into a federal prosecution. And she can't testify at this stage unless he's been prosecuted for the offenses she's testifying about.

Mallory Book doesn't object to any of this, nor does she cross-examine any of the witnesses. That's because the defense she has planned doesn't depend on claiming the Leader is innocent, or even decent. No, her defense is to blame gamma radiation.

Ms. Book calls Dr. Leonard Samson to the stand first. He testifies that the Leader was an average joe before his gamma exposure, and that afterwards his brain changed and he "began exhibiting anti-social behavior almost immediately." Book even gets him to say that it's not common for high school dropouts to try to take over the world after accidents at work.

Dr. Samson is clearly testifying as an expert, and he certainly has the credentials to do so. One conspicuous problem with his testimony is that there's no indication that he's ever actually examined the Leader. He's familiar with the guy's backstory, but he says nothing that suggests he's done any specific psychological evaluation of the Leader. That won't necessarily prevent him from testifying, but it's a huge weakness that the prosecution would definitely stress. Of course, Ms. Book doesn't give the prosecution the opportunity:

Maybe it's just me, but Dr. Samson seems actually happy to offer up testimony to help the Leader.

Book's second witness is Jen "She-Hulk" Walters. Jen admits to being more "uninhibited" as She-Hulk, and Book presses her into admitting to all her sexual relationships as She-Hulk. (While the court might compel Jen to reveal the number of her sexual partners, I rather doubt any judge would force her to name names on the record. Here, it's obviously played for laughs, so we'll forgive that.) Book finally gets Jen to admit that she has always preferred to live out her life as She-Hulk, and then Book wraps up with this:

The prosecutor may be sitting upright in the background, but he's clearly nodded off. There's no other explanation for why he'd allow the defense attorney to go off on this preachifying narrative without objecting. Especially when she draws a conclusion about her client's mental state based on the witness's mental state.

I'm also amused at the undertones of Book's theory. Bruce Banner gets belted by gamma rays, and it makes him want to smash things. Sam Sterns gets exposed to gamma radiation, and it makes him want to take over the world. Jen Walters gets a gamma-irradiated transfusion, and it makes her want to sleep with a lot of men.

I studied that last panel of Book for a bit, trying to figure out what kind of defense she's advancing. There is no "addict defense." Intoxication can negate some elements of some crimes, but it's not being argued that the Leader was 'intoxicated' on gamma radiation. This is a full-time condition for him. And he was in full control of his mental capacities.

Finally, I determined that Mallory Book is pursuing a particular kind of insanity defense: the irresistible impulse. You may remember this from the trial of Copperhead. Your typical insanity defense involves a person who claims they couldn't distinguish between right and wrong. That certainly does NOT describe the Leader, who proudly admits to being an evil person earlier in the issue. The irresistible impulse defense claims that the defendant was fully aware that his actions were wrong, but that he was helpless to stop himself from doing them anyway. He couldn't control himself. Inhibitions don't really play a role, but Book does reference control.

There's a chance that Book may have forfeited the opportunity to make this defense at all. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure require a defendant to notify the court in advance that it is going to pursue an insanity defense. Since insanity defenses will inevitably involve competing doctors and diagnoses, it's unfair for the defense to suddenly spring the defense at trial, with no opportunity for the prosecution to rebut with its own experts. Here, not only does the prosecutor not object (despite earlier indications that he didn't know what the defense plan was going to be), but he doesn't even cross-examine the defense witnesses. Further proof that he's sleeping. Or grossly incompetent. Take your pick.

Assuming that she did the proper pretrial notification, the burden is still on Book to show her client was 'insane.' And to meet that burden, she's going to need to do better than a doctor who hasn't examined her client and a woman who suffers from a similar condition. She'll need to put somebody on the stand who can say "The Leader can't control what he does." The defendant himself, if no one else. And this may be a tough claim to make, since the Leader demonstrates later in the issue, and in front of a crowd of people, that he is fully capable of controlling his own actions.

In fact, her two witnesses so far may have hurt her argument. Book wants to argue that the influence of gamma rays are what drove her client to want to kill and conquer. Well, both of Book's witnesses are gamma-irradiated people (which Book specifically drew attention to), and neither of them are murderers or wannabe despots. Neither of them are even so much as antisocial. If she wants to put the blame on the gamma rays, then she needs to do some explaining as to why her client's condition is so different from theirs. Once again, that's going to require some testimony specific to the Leader, and not broader talk of gamma rays.

And then there's a small, niggling, detail that the federal courts don't recognize the defense of irresistible impulse, which should make Mallory's entire defense strategy useless and wholly objectionable. But, since the insanity defense is something that courts have fluctuated on over the years, we'll give Mallory the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Marvel Universe Federal Rules allow it.

Next issue I expect the trial will wrap up, but it's hard to see at this point how any verdict will be much of a "win" for the defense. The only apparent options for the jury are "Guilty" and "Not guilty by reason of insanity." If the former, he's liable to be on the receiving end of a needle. If the latter, then he avoids execution or imprisonment for the moment, but he's guaranteed to be committed. Walking away a free man is not exactly a viable option.