A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Challengers of the Unknown #2: The Trial of the Challs

Greg over at Comics Should Be Good has a retrospective on Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Challengers of the Unknown mini-series from the early 1990s. I can't say that I've read the whole thing, but I have read the second issue, which features the Challs (or rather, three of them) on trial. It's an issue I've intended to review since starting this blog.

In the first issue of the mini, Challenger Mountain explodes. The blast kills hundrds in neighboring Challengerville, and causes millions in property damage. This page provides a great synopsis of the issue's events. In short, a saboteur sent a bomb into the Mountain, but the Challs believe that the explosion was caused by one of Prof's experiments. Because of the bomb, it's not made clear whether Prof's actions would have caused an explosion on their own or not. In any case, Prof died in the blast.

That same site (and I find it rather neat that someone other than DC owns ChallengersoftheUnknown.com) also has a detailed breakdown of issue #2. So if you'd like to see an issue summary and some panels before heading into the legal stuff, have at it.

Issue two picks up five months later (probably a little fast, but a lot better than some other timeframes we've covered) in the Federal Courthouse in Denver, Colorado. With Prof dead, only Red, Ace, and Rocky are on trial.

On trial for what? Well, the issue never actually says what they're charged with. The attorneys ask the jury to find the Challs "guilty" and "innocent," but never say guilty or innocent of what. (And in any case, the defense attorney should be asking for a "not guilty" verdict, not an "innocent" one.) Even at the end of the issue, the jurors find the Challs "not guilty of any criminal misconduct." It's all pretty vague.

We could create a laundry list of potential charges that might have been brought against the Challs for the destruction of Challengerville, but most of those would be state criminal charges. I'm content to assume that whatever federal charges could be gleaned from the circumstances were what got the Challs into federal court. Given the mention of the death penalty later in the issue, it's necessary to say that at least some federal murder charges were involved. This is one of those occasions where being vague actually works to the writer's benefit, since I can't say anything it definitely wrong.

Unfortunately, there's not much else in this issue that's to Loeb's benefit. Starting on the first page, he has the defense attorney giving the first opening statement. The first opening statement in court goes to the party with the burden of proof, which in criminal cases is the prosecutor. Loeb gets the order of the opening statements backwards.

I was tempted to say that he gets the witness portion of the trial backwards too, but that's not quite true. Rather, Loeb doesn't have the prosecution put on a case at all. Opening statements end at the bottom of page three, and the defense starts calling witnesses at the top of page four. No indication is made as to any passage of time. Nobody's even changed clothes. And throughout the rest of the issue, every other witness is a defense witness. How the prosecutor can say she's been "sterling in there," without having called any witnesses or presented any evidence at all, is beyond me.

Yes, the prosecutor manages to go the entire issue claiming the Challs should be convicted of, well, something, but the only time she even hinted at them being responsible for the blast was in her opening statement: "They were four men and a woman who were operating a near-nuclear facility and blew up the whole damn mountain." That's it. It ends up being the defense attorney who finally presents a theory as to how the Challs were involved (i.e., it was Prof's fault). Then again, the prosecutor is seemingly possessed by a demon of some sort, so perhaps the demon was impairing her legal skills. Since the prosecutor has a fair number of out-of-line statements, I'll just chalk them all up to the demon (the script strongly suggests exactly that in a couple of places).

Loeb manages to err with the closing statements too. This time he puts them in the right order with respect to each other, but he inserts them before the defense's last surprise witness. They're not even good closing statements, since they say virtually nothing about the exploding mountain, but rather just a lot about the character of the defendants.

The last witness is Superman, who shows up to take the witness stand, give a narrative speech about how the Challs are heroes, quote the tagline from his movie ("you believe a man can fly"), and basically shame the jury into finding the Challs not guilty. It's a cute moment that Loeb definitely liked, but it's bad for two reasons. First, trials don't have surprise witnesses anymore. It's prejudicial to the other side to suddenly bring an unexpected person to the stand without having given some time to prepare.

Second, Superman's testimony doesn't shed any light on the question of the Challengers' guilt. He even admits that he doesn't know them. There's no value to putting him on the stand, so he would almost assuredly be excluded from testifying.

In fact, his testimony isn't the only one that's problematic. The parade of defense witnesses on pages four and five are all troublesome as well. Their testimony is all about how the Challengers were heroes and helped the city of Challengerville before the mountain exploded. That would be fine if the court was considering sentencing, but it's irrelevant to the question of guilt. None of them knew the Challs personally, so they can't even slip in as character witnesses.

On the plus side (finally!), the prosecutor's question to the defense witnesses ("How much money would you lose if the Challengers were found guilty today?") is a legitimate question to ask in order to impeach a witness's credibility. A financial interest in a case's outcome can affect a person's testimony.

(The last witness to respond on page five says "I take the Fifth." He probably can't do that. The Fifth Amendment's guarantee is against self-incrimination; unless Mr. Daniels would risk incriminating himself by answering the question about money loss, he can't take the Fifth.)

The three remaining Challengers take the stand as well, and all three testify about what happened in the mountain. Actually no, that's a total lie, because that would relevant to the charges against them. So instead, Loeb has them all testify about their history as members of the Challengers of the Unknown. And he has a reporter take the stand to talk about Prof's personal history. There's objectionable material scattered throughout, but this is still the closest to allowable testimony that Loeb gets.

Eventually, the defense attorney puts forward an actual defense: "On that fateful day, [Prof] Walter Haley pulled that fatal switch and blew up Challenger Mountain." This is good. It explains, simply and plainly, why the three men on trial weren't criminally responsible for the explosion. For some reason, the defendants are rather unhappy with this, as if they'd rather go to jail than admit "Prof did it." And remember, since none of them know about the bomb, they all [i]do[/i] think that Prof did it.

The prosecutor has an unexpected response to this: "And now, by introducing as their defense that the guilty party is a dead man, they've admitted their guilt!" I really hope Loeb meant for this line to be a demon-afflicted one (even though she's missing the visual cue that accompanies her other outbursts), because it would be phenomenally stupid for an intelligent lawyer to say. How can saying that someone else is guilty possibly be construed as admission of one's own guilt?

Finally, we reach the jury verdict: "We the jury find the Challengers of the Unknown not guilty of any criminal misconduct." It's a little odd that they don't use the defendants' names, made odder by the fact that we finally see clearly that the front of the defense table has hanging off of the front headshots of all four Challs with their nicknames. Are we to assume Prof is on trial too, as a dead man?

Still, that's an acceptable verdict. What isn't acceptable is what follows: "But, your honor, we do feel that the Challengers should make full financial restitution to the town of Challengerville." Sorry, no. For one thing, juries don't hand down punishments; that's the judge's job. But more importantly, a criminal jury cannot find the defendants Not Guilty, and then still punish the defendants. A 'not guilty' verdict means no punishment gets imposed, at least if and until there's a civil trial.

I'll close with a little flub that's presumably on Tim Sale's part, though it might have been in Loeb's script. On the splash panel of pages two and three, we see a lot of cameras and spotlights in the back of the courtroom. As I've mentioned before, federal criminal trials aren't allowed to be filmed. And even if the DCU had a different general rule, the sheer number and size of spotlights would be a huge distraction and annoyance to the judge, jurors, and any witnesses, and would be disallowed for that reason.