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THE LAW IS A ASS for 12/12/2000
"The Law is a Ass" Installment # 73
Originally written as installment # 62 and published in Comics Buyer's Guide issue # 615, August 30, 1985 issue
The late C. C. Beck, most-famous as being the artist of the vast majority of the Captain Marvel stories for Fawcett publications, used to write a column somewhere called "S.O.B," which stood for, "Some Opinionated Bastard." I don't say this out of disrespect. It was his title for his column and he was talking about himself. Beck used to claim the"C. C."in his name stood for "Crusty Curmudgeon."
Beck was a self-admitted curmudgeon and an opinionated one, to boot. I agreed with some of his opinions, but not all of them. At the risk or sounding self-serving, one of the ones with which I most disagreed was when he wrote in to the Comics Buyer's Guide to complain about the column that follows. He claimed that my take on the final chapter of "The Monster Society of Evil," was part and parcel of what was wrong with present-day comics: my column showed how we present-day creators were now taking comics too seriously and forgetting that they were supposed to be fun. We weren't doing fun stuff like the did back in comics' heyday.
Go and read the column then come back here. Yes, I pointed out some legal mistakes in the story in question, but can anyone, honestly, read the following column and claim I was taking anything too seriously?
But enough about Beck. Let's get back to my favorite topic for a moment: me. I'd like to clear up one common misconception about me. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a lawyer. I don't care that I've got a law school degree and a license to practice law. I don't even care that I've got a full-time job as a senior attorney for the Cuyahoga County Public Defender Office in Cleveland, Ohio, I'm not a lawyer! I'm a writer who happens to pay all his bills by working in some meaningless, staff attorney job.
"The Law is a Ass"
Installment # 73
Classic comics. No, I don't mean those comic-book adaptations of Silas Marner we used to read for English class because they were even shorter than the Cliff's Notes or showed to our mothers to convince them comics were educational, so they'd let us buy those Fredrik Wertham condemned titles like Oedipus Man. We're talking about Justice League of America# 19 and Chapter Twenty-Five of the Captain Marvel serial, "The Monster Society of Evil," here.
Old comic stories used to play fast and loose with the law, unlike today's comic stories, which are hallmarked by strict attention to the minute workings of the legal system. So, every once in a while, I like to vivisect some old stories. After all, the examples found there can serve just as well to demonstrate how the law should be portrayed, as a current comic, and it doesn't get as many people mad at me. What's more I've got these kind fans who send copies of old stories full of mistakes just ripe for analysis. How could I say them nay?
The first such fan is Nelson Bridwell, who lives in New York City and works for some obscure company called DC. He wanted to know why I've never written about the trial of Mr. Mind from the last part of the "Monster Society of Evil" serial. Well, Nelson, I'd never read the story, until you sent it to me. I don't own a copy of either the original story or its reprint in Shazam! From the 40's To the 70's. For some reason I never got around to buying the book and now I can't find it on the remainder tables anymore. Hey, it's almost Christmas, does anyone know where I might find a copy? (He asks wondering whether anyone will pick up on the oh-so-subtle hint.)
The setup works like this: for the last twenty-four parts of a twenty-five part story, Mr. Mind, a super intelligent worm from another planet, has been the behind the scenes master villain and manipulator organizing the Monster Society of Evil. In part twenty-five Captain Marvel finally captures Mr. Mind, and the pernicious planarian stands trial. And not just for some piddly, little crimes, either. Mr. Mind is standing trial for 186,744 counts of first degree murder. This has been one busy bookworm. Now, don't worry: this trial only lasts two pages not two years. Still, in only two pages the story is able to make a mistake or five.
First, we have Captain Marvel himself being appointed to act as the prosecutor. Well, we know that can't be. Yes, I know in days gone bay--and we're talking even more long-gone than the days when I was in shape, if such a thing is possible--private citizens used to be appointed as prosecutors. But this was back in the early days of this country, when law schools weren't churning out attorneys as regularly as Valerie Bertinelli does mini-series. In those days, there weren't enough lawyers to be prosecutors, so private citizens were appointed to go around. The practice still exists today, that's how we get special prosecutors looking at blue dresses, and not for the fashion statement it conveys.
But here's the thing, nowadays, when there are enough lawyers to go around--enough for every street corner, in fact--we appoint lawyers as special prosecutors, not private citizens. To do otherwise would be to entrap those private into practicing law without a license prosecutions. Admittedly, that would keep our special prosecutors busy, but it really wouldn't be fair to those private citizens who thought they were just doing their duty.
The Big Red Cheese, to the best of my knowledge, never went to law school for three years like I did and never took a bar examination. In other words, Captain Marvel isn't a lawyer. I know he has the wisdom of Solomon, but that still doesn't equal three years at an accredited law school. After all, look at Solomon's major accomplishment in the law.
It's the old "split the baby" story. I'm sure you've all heard it, but just in case, two women both claim they're the mother of the same baby. As there wasn't DNA testing back then, Solomon came up with another elegant solution, or, at least, he thought it was elegant. He ordered that the baby be cut in two and one half given to each of the claimants. One of the claimants said this was fine and the other said, no, she'd rather have her rival get the baby rather than see it killed in that way. And Solomon then declared her to be the true mother, because no true mother would stand by and watch her baby be killed. Do any of you really think that ploy would actually work? What lady is willingly going to go halvies on a baby? What would she have then? Half a dead baby. Of what possible use could that be to anyone? So how could Solomon have actually thought that only one woman, the real mother, would say, "No, let my rival have it, better the baby be alive and with here than be dead," while the other one said, "Yes, give me half a dead baby?" Let's face it, with legal reasoning like that, Captain might have needed four years of law school: one to unlearn all of Solomon's wisdom.
Even if Captain Marvel were an attorney, he could never be the prosecutor in Mr. Mind's case. The Code of Professional Responsibility expressly forbids a lawyer from acting as an attorney in any case in which he or she will be a material witness. Now, who do you think foiled all of Mr. Mind's schemes then captured the nefarious nematode? All those who didn't say Captain Marvel will have to stay after class. No, wait, I'll give you another chance: who do you think will have to testify against Mr. Mind in his trial, so couldn't be the prosecutor because of the above-cited sections of the Code of Professional Responsibility? (Okay, most of you can go to recess, when this is over, but Tommy, you're just not paying attention.)
The next mistake is that Mr. Mind is called by Captain Marvel as the only witness in the whole trial. You got that now? Captain Marvel subpoenas Mr. Mind and on direct examination asks him questions like, "Then you deny that during your career you've murdered 186,744 people in cold blood?" (Silly question, how else could a cold-blooded worm murder people?) How many of you remember my talking about The Constitution during our previous meetings? How many of you remember that The Fifth Amendment to that same Constitution expressly forbids self-incrimination? Captain Marvel could not call Mr. Mind to the stand, at least not without making Mr. Mind's trial even more of mockery that a certain Scarlet Speedster's trial was. (Cut me some slack, people! Flash was my constant companion for two years, I only just laid him to rest last week; you can't expect me just to forget him overnight.) So, if all of you remember this, why didn't the judge or Mr. Mind's defense attorney remember this and tell Captain Marvel he couldn't call Mr. Mind, not no how not no way?
Next mistake is found in Captain Marvel's blistering examination of Mr. Mind. It consisted of him accusing the terrible trematode of evil deeds and Mr. Mind denying each and every one. ("Then you deny that during your career you've murdered 186,744 people in cold blood?" "Yes." "Didn't you try to take over the world with your old friend, The Brain?" "No." "Isn't it true that you ripped the 'Do Not Remove' tags off of mattresses?" "No. I don't have any hands." You know, that sort of thing.) Captain Marvel would ask the question and Mr. Mind would answer no, not admitting to a single one of the accusations. Then after Mr. Mind was finished testi-denying, the prosecution rested. That was it, the entire prosecution case: making accusations against Mr. Mind and having him deny them.
Oops. Captain Marvel just lost his case.
You see, in all criminal trials the state has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That means that the state must produce enough evidence to convince the jury of the defendant's guilt. Note that word: "evidence". A prosecutor's questions aren't evidence, the witness's answers are. Thus, the only evidence that the jury had was Mr. Mind's denials of criminal wrong doing. Based on that evidence, that of Mr. Mind denying any and all criminal conduct, the jury would have had to find him not guilty. Captain Marvel never proved his case.
Oh well, what can you expect from a man who got his legal training from someone who would subdivide infants?
Moving right along in the trial we come to our next major mistake: Mr. Mind's lawyer stands up to cross-examine his client and asks him no questions. Instead he says, "After hearing what Captain Marvel said about all the horrible crimes you performed, all I've got to say, Mr. Mind, is --I hope you get the electric chair!"
And you thought having Captain Marvel be both prosecutor and potential witness in the same case violated the Code of Professional Responsibility. Would it surprise you to learn that another canon in said code commands that an attorney represent his or her client zealously. Zealously doesn't mean asking no questions and openly wishing your client fries. I think after this, Mr. Mind is, at least, entitled to a new trial with a new lawyer.
Finally, the jury doesn't deliberate. Right after Mr. Mind's lawyer sounds off, the judge tells the jury to go deliberate. (Ordinarily, I'd call that a mistake, too. The judge never gave Mr. Mind a chance to put on his defense. But, considering what Mr. Mind's lawyer just said, I don't think any defense was forthcoming, anyway.) The jury says, "We don't have to go out. We have decided already, Your Honor!"
A jury can't reach it's decision, until after it has heard all the evidence, then has deliberated and reached a unanimous verdict. It's got to go back into the jury room to deliberate and vote on that unanimous verdict. Even if the jury reaches its verdict on the first ballot--what we lawyers call a "flash verdict," because, unlike the Flash verdict we had been following for the past two years, they happen quickly--it's got to back into the deliberation room to take that vote (Again, I apologize. I've been writing about "The Trial of the Flash" for so long, it's like a Pavlovian response: I think mistake in trial and write The Flash.
Anyway, getting back to the trial of Mr. Mind, this jury returned it's verdict without even going to the jury room. It didn't have time to deliberate. Hell, it didn't even have time to vote! Mr. Mind should ask for a recount, after all Juror # 4, Chad by name, had those cute dimples.
Well, I will give this trial one thing. Even if it wasn't accurate, it was short. Only ten panels long. That averages out to only one mistake every two panels.
When Nelson sent me the trial of Mr. Mind, he asked me if a ten-panel trial set some kind of record. Sorry, Nelson, it doesn't even come close. Randy Freeman of Riverside, California reminded me of the wonderful trial sequence in Justice League of America# 19, "The Super-Exiles of Earth." That trial is only four panels long and has almost as many mistakes.
Some background info: Dr. Destiny has used a Materiopticon to make live duplicates of the JLA. Said duplicates, which are more powerful that the real JLA, commit crimes all across the country. You know in Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City, Coast City and the like. Naturally, the police, who know nothing of the duplicates, assume the JLA has gone bad and is responsible for the crimes. So the JLA is arrested and brought before an arraignment court judge in Empire City.
Now, right away we have a problem. Empire City only has jurisdiction over crimes committed in Empire City. (Where else did you think I was going to say, the Emerald City of Oz?). So this judge doesn't have the jurisdiction over the subject matter to hear most of the cases before him. You know the ones from Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City, Coast City and the like. Nevertheless, he does. (Now that's judicial economy! Completely and utterly wrong and legally impossible, but economical.)
Jean Loring represents the entire JLA (let's assume that Jean is barred in this Empire City's home state, so she isn't barred from practicing law) and on their behalf enters a plea of nolo contendere. This is a plea which means the JLA members admit the truth of the charges in the indictment, but not their guilt. It's the plea that Spiro Agnew entered in his case; the one that basically cost him the vice-presidency. After a defendant enters a nolo plea, and basically admits to the truth of the facts alleged in the indictment, if the judge thinks the charges in the indictment are sufficient to set out a crime, he then will find the JLA guilty of the crimes charged. It's a real short form trial.
There are two real interesting things about this nolo plea. First there is no prosecutor present. I don't know of any plea which could go forward without the prosecutor being there. Still, we'll let them slide on this one. Not even the most law-and-order tempered prosecutor would object to the defendants pleading nolo to the entire indictment. I mean, what else does the prosecutor want, a confession to the Lindbergh kidnaping?
The second interesting thing is that the plea is made conditional on the judge's exiling the JLA from Earth. Okay, this answers the last question. Apparently the prosecution and Jean Loring had worked out a plea and agreed sentence before they went into court. It doesn't answer why this prosecutor--who must have been running for judge or governor sometime soon, because in fiction aren't all prosecutors running for judge or governor somewhere?--wouldn't be there for the highest-profile case of his or her career. But that gets us off the point of the "second interesting thing."
While banishment from the country, either by deportation or expatriation, is a valid punishment in the USA, I'm not sure a state court judge has the authority to order it. I'll bet if you checked, you'd find out that only a federal judge can deport, expatriate, or exile. This, of course, means that the judge in our story had no power to exile the JLA to space, but how many of you guessed from the title that he did anyway? (See, you're getting better at this all the time!)
You may wonder why the JLA pleaded nolo with the condition that the judge exile them? I know I did. It's because they knew they were "innocent, but [they had] no legal proof of that." Now, don't get ahead of me; that's not really a mistake. Yes, all criminal defendants are presumed innocent, until the state proves them guilty, but the statement isn't a mistake. It's just a short cut version of some legal reasoning. What the JLA meant was that the prosecutor will have no problem proving that persons who looked like the JLA and with the same powers committed some crimes. That's certainly enough to make a good case against the JLA such that the jury would very likely find them guilty. As the JLA couldn't show the jury that they had been impersonated, the most likely result of a trial would be a guilty verdict. That's what the JLA meant, when they said they couldn't prove their innocence: they couldn't prove the impersonations happened. And without being able to prove their defense, conviction was a foregone conclusion.
Later in the story the JLA learns of Dr. Destiny's scheme and returns to Earth to fight their evil counterparts. How, you may ask, since they were exiled from the planet? Easy, they were only exiled in their costumed identities. No one exiled Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen, and the rest from Earth. So the JLA went back to Earth in their civvies, fought their evil duplicates and won the day.
Yes, it does seem like rather fine hair splitting to conclude that the exile didn't include the JLA's civilian identities; but as the exiling done by a state court judge probably wasn't legal in the first place, what difference does it make? The JLA was right for the wrong reason.
Well, there you have it. Two classic stories which were just chock full o' mistakes. Makes you kind of wonder, though. If those two stories could have all those mistakes in just fourteen panels combined, why did Flash have to take twenty-six issues?
(Look, I haven't gotten him out of my system yet? I'm working on it!)
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