A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Manhunter: Closing Arguments in the Trial of the Shadow Thief

Well, the final issue of the trial of the Shadow Thief is out, and frankly, not much happened. Actually, that's a lie. Some really explosive stuff happened, just not in the courtroom. More like, to to the courtroom. In retrospect, the trial itself more or less ended back in #8.

To recap, here are my previous Manhunter reviews. Out of the 5-issue "Trial by Fire," issue #6 showed some pretrial dealings, and #9 and 10 dealt almost entirely with an attack on the courthouse. Only #7 and 8 actually depicted courtroom trial action, during which time Kate called Hawkman, Superman, and Ronnie Raymond's parents as witnesses for the prosecution.

Lucky for you and me, the storyline only lasted five issues, unlike the interminable, 24-issue Trial of the Flash (the trial itself turns 20 this year). Even I don't want to pick on Kate Spencer every month for two years.

Looking back on the finished arc, here's a question for Manhunter readers: how did the Shadow Thief allegedly murder Firestorm? Now don't go telling me what you read in Identity Crisis or in some online interview or recap; that's cheating. Where in the five issues of the Shadow Thief's trial was the Shadow Thief's crime ever described beyond "He killed Firestorm"? Anyone? Bueller?

Personally, I think that may be the arc's most glaring storytelling flaw (as opposed to its plethora of legal flaws). Trials, by their very nature, are supposed to share the details of the crimes alleged. Here we have five issues, and nary a detail about the murder that the arc is about. No location, no description, no witnesses, no evidence. Nada. There managed to be two whole issues devoted to the questioning of trial witnesses, and not a single one of them gave even a hint of a detail about Firestorm's murder.

And that, of course, is also the arc's biggest legal flaw: Kate didn't prove squat. She managed to call and question four witnesses (none of whom should've been allowed on the stand anyway), without eliciting a word of evidence relevant to the defendant's crime. There was no evidence or testimony that said Shadow Thief stabbed Firestorm, or even that Sands was present when Ronnie died. There was no murder weapon either mentioned or shown. There was no body, and no testimony to explain why there wasn't a body. Not only was there no evidence presented linking Sands to the crime, there was no evidence presented at trial that there even was a crime.

Kate did such a universally crummy job of proving her case that if she had rested after questioning the Raymonds, the defense would have asked the judge for a directed verdict in Sands' favor and they would've won. Kate's trial plan involved at least two days of nothing but irrelevant, not to mention objectionable, testimony. Renowned federal prosecutor my fanny.

As readers of Identity Crisis certainly remember, there were three witnesses to Firestorm's murder: Captain Marvel, Vixen, and Shining Knight. (Readers of Manhunter don't necessarily know this, since none of the three were ever shown or even mentioned.) One can only hope that Kate had subpoenaed them off-panel, and planned to call them to the stand eventually.

In fact, a great many of the story's flaws could've been remedied if only those three had been a part. Issue #6 could've shown a marshal attempting to track down and subpoena any or all of them (something that couldn't be done as easily as simply beaming up to the Watchtower). Issue #7 could have begun with Shining Knight testifying about how Sands stole his sword, with Captain Marvel testifying later about how Sands stabbed Ronnie. Issue #8 could've wrapped up the three with Vixen, and then had Kate call someone like Ray Palmer as an expert witness to testify about Firestorm's nuclear nature and why he exploded when stabbed. Maybe the defense attorney could've insinuated that Ray's recent personal troubles gave him a personal stake in the trial, and a reason to be biased.

As an added bonus, these changes save much of the cross-examination in #7. Imagine Knight's credibility being challenged with questions about his supposed time-travelling. "So you claim to be a member of King Arthur's court?" He could fly off the handle just like Hawkman, and the judge can still say the courtroom isn't "a medieval battle." And wow about this as a defense question for Captain Marvel: how many times has nuclear-man Captain Atom blown up, only to return safe and sound later on? He did it in Superman/Batman just last year, in an arc that Marvel was part of. Why should Sands be convicted of murder if no one can be certain if Ronnie actually died, and didn't merely pull a stunt like Atom or Major Force? There's good eyewitness testimony that Sands committed aggravated assault and battery, even attempted homicide, but first-degree murder? Not so solid.

I'm pleased to see Marc Andreyko say that he is "doing some extensive research right now into the intricacies of Federal trials," and it raises my hopes for the next trial arc. (Based on Marc's presence and comments on online comic forums, he seems to be one of the most courteous and stand-up guys in the business.) But the big problems in this arc weren't intricacies, and they aren't unique to the federal court system. The closest thing to a federal intricacy was something that Slam Bradley noted about the federal rules of cross-examination (and a rule that I personally think is perfectly OK to bend for storytelling purposes). Even the jurisdictional issues are more the fault of DC editorial or Brad Meltzer than of this book's creators. A prosecutor's responsibility to present evidence of a murder during a murder trial isn't really an intricacy.

I think that about wraps it up for the trial of the Shadow Thief. If you have any questions about anything in the arc I didn't touch on, then shoot. And be sure to come back in a week or two when I rip on Kate yet again as I tackle...the trial of Copperhead.