A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Friday, March 18, 2005

Manhunter #8: The Trial of the Shadow Thief, Part 2

"Trial by Fire Part 3"
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artist: Javier Pina and Jimmy Palmiotti

Has it been a month already? Well, now we come to the second installment in the trial of Carl Sands, the Shadow Thief, for the murder of Firestorm.

When last we left our avenging attorney, Carl Sands was about to be abducted by the terrorist Cheshire. For better or worse, Kate Spencer (as Manhunter) intervenes and fights off Cheshire, and ensures that Sands remains in custody. The trial eventually resumes, but the courtroom scenes this month take up only a handful of pages.

We see a couple of last month's visual blunders repeated again. Sands is still dressed in his orange jail jumpsuit in the courtroom, and is still confined to a tube for some reason. His attorney must not care much about how his client looks to the jurors.

There's another little mistake that could also be blamed on the artist. When Kate fails to arrive on time for trial, her co-counsel asks to speak to the judge at the bench. But only the prosecutor approaches, and the defense attorney doesn't. Judges don't talk to counsel separately; whatever is said to one, the other is entitled to hear.

Kate finally arrives, and calls her next two witnesses: Felicity Smoak-Raymond and Edward Raymond, Firestorm's step-mother and father. Their testimony is truncated for the sake of space, but what they have to say basically boils down to:

1) The victim, superhero "Firestorm," was actually Ronnie Raymond.
2) Ronnie was a great guy and a great son.

Thus, during her first two days of direct examination, Kate has called four consecutive witnesses who know absolutely nothing about the crime in question. It's not even clear that they were in the same state, or even the same part of the country, that the murder took place in.

The question that the jury is supposed to decide is whether Sands caused the death of Ronnie Raymond with a malicious intent. Despite calling four witnesses, Kate has provided the jury exactly zero evidence relevant to determining the answer to that question. None of the four saw the killing. None of the four have testified about the killing. None of the four have provided any testimony that Sands acted malciously. So far, all the jury has heard is "Ronnie was a great guy, and Sands is a crook."

And this is not merely a poor tactical move on Kate's part. The testimony of both of Ronnie's parents is wholly objectionable. All they have to offer up is character evidence of their son, the victim. That sort of testimony is certainly appropriate during the sentencing phase following a conviction, when the jury can hear about the character of the victim in deciding whether they should impose the death penalty. Killing a well-respected member of the community is more likely to get you executed than killing a local thug. But the victim's character is all but completely irrelevant and inadmissible at trial. That Ronnie was a good son may affect the punishment imposed on Sands, but it tells the jurors absolutely nothing as to whether Sands killed Ronnie.

With three witnesses in a row offering nothing but character evidence on the victim, the defense attorney ought to be getting hoarse from objecting constantly. Heck, he should've objected to them taking the stand at all, because they possess no information that's legally relevant to the murder in question. But he doesn't make a peep. If Sands actually does get convicted, he has an excellent appeal based on the ineffective assistance of counsel (as Slam pointed out last time).

The only substantive testimony the Raymonds have to offer is the true identity of Firestorm. Secret identites are something that real courts don't have to deal with, so this point takes a bit of hypothetical thinking.

Firestorm died by exploding, and thus left no body (the jury knows this, but only because of Kate's opening statement). Witness testimony from those who saw the explosion would probably suffice to show that a death actually occurred (even if Kate hasn't called any such witnesses yet). The criminal charge as filed would state the identity of the victim. Sometimes, victims may be vagrants or unknown persons. "John Does." That the state doesn't know the victim's true identity doesn't necessarily prevent a prosecution from proceeding. And here, based on the 'surprise' testimony, it certainly seems that the charge against Sands was for causing the death of "Firestorm," and not of "Ronald Raymond."

And that might be acceptable, if the state was truly ignorant of the victim's identity. But it's made pretty clear here that the state knew full well that Firestorm was, in fact, Ronnie Raymond. The state has to submit a prospective witness list before trial, and the Raymonds must have been on it. The defense may or may not have known, but the public clearly did not.

What would be the legal ramifications of this, if any? The defense had a right to know if the state knew, and if the prosecution failed to disclose that information to Sands' attorneys, that's probably a recipe for trouble. But even if both sides knew and kept it to themselves, that still creates problems.

Since Kate planned for the identity information to come out at trial, that identity is very relevant during jury selection. Jurors were assuredly asked whether they had ever encountered 'Firestorm' in any way, to determine whether they might be biased. But what about jurors who might have known or been related to Ronnie, and didn't know he was Firestorm? A juror's sudden revelation that he does, in fact, know the victim is potentially a source of great bias. Granted, the chances of such a familiarity are relatively slim (though he did work with the Power Company in San Francisco for a time), but it's still a very important boilerplate question, and the failure to ask it is a huge legal oversight. If just one juror did know the Raymonds (or even if one of the struck jurors knew the Raymonds), that alone could lead directly to a reversal and a retrial.

I also feel that this is poor tactical move on Kate's part. If she wanted to put a "human face" on Firestorm, then she could have done that from the start. Ronnie Raymond's name could have appeared on the charge, and she could have repeated his name over and over during her opening statement. That way, 'Firestorm' would be humanized from the very start, and not from the third witness on.

That's it for this month. Maybe next month Kate will finally call a witness in this murder trial who has something to say about, y'know, a murder.