The Trial (And Appeal) of Marvel Boy

This post was inspired by an email from Rebecca, who writes: “In The New Warriors comic [Vol1. No. 20-26], Vance Astrovik [aka Marvel Boy] accidentally killed his abusive father using his telekinetic powers.  He was tried for first degree murder and negligent homicide; he was acquitted of the former and convicted of the latter. Vance did not appeal the conviction, but do you think he would have been successful if he did?”

This is a great question.  Not only can we look at some important issues in criminal law and procedure, but this also gives us a chance to look at how appeals work.  The most important thing to understand about an appeal is that it is not a do-over before a higher court; there are important and often severe limitations on what issues and evidence can be presented on appeal, and the appeals court is itself limited in what it can do and on what basis it can do it.  Since the case occurred in New York in 1992 we will try to analyze it from that point of view.  But let’s start with the facts of the case.

I. The Facts

In case you don’t remember the details of this 18-year-old storyline, the facts are basically these: Vance Astrovik had been physically abused by his father, Arnold, for four years.  Arnold was evidently motivated by hatred of Vance’s mutant status and his tendency to hang out with other mutants.  The one time his mother, Norma, attempted to intervene, Arnold struck her as well.  On at least one occasion, Vance used his telekinetic powers to resist an attack from Arnold without harming him.

After being severely injured in fights with Terrax and Gideon, Vance is attacked by his father, who punches him to the floor and approaches him menacingly, saying “You are a freak!  It’s going to stop–if I have to pound it out of you…”  At that point, Vance unleashes a telekinetic blast, pushing his father through two walls, severely injuring him.  Vance flees the scene.

Later, Vance comes to the hospital where his father is being reated.  There he is arrested for “assault with a deadly weapon–your telekinetic powers, to be exact!” (Note that this suggests that, in the Marvel universe, innate offensive powers are considered weapons, which may have significant legal consequences).  After Vance’s arrest, Arnold dies from his injuries, and the charges are upgraded to murder.

So far everything is legally sound.  There is a reasonable theory for treating innate offensive powers as weapons, and while the prosecutor had a wide range of possible charges she could bring, she has discretion to choose among them.  It would also be appropriate to upgrade the charge to murder after the victim died, so long as the defendant’s attack was still the proximate cause of death (and in this case it was).  This brings us to the trial.

II. The Trial

Most of the New Warriors leave town during the trial for a mission.  Firestar stays behind to testify on the theory that testimony from any of the others would be excludable as cumulative.  See People v. Ventimiglia, 52 N.Y.2d 350 (Ct. App. N.Y. 1981).  That’s a reasonable theory, though it depends on the testimony they had to offer being, in fact, cumulative.  While the testimony the state might want from them could be cumulative (e.g. it’s may be sufficient that only one say that Vance could have stopped his father without resorting to deadly force), the defense would likely want to pile as many positive character witnesses on as it could.  So Vance’s teammates weren’t doing him any favors by taking off.

Vance is represented by Foggy Nelson, a partner in Matt Murdock’s law firm.  Right off the bat, Foggy dismisses two potential jurors who had prior interactions with superheroes.  Presumably their interactions were negative.

The first witness called is an expert on superhuman genetics, Walter Rosen, who was familiar with Vance’s powers.  Rosen testified that Vance had excellent control over his powers and had grown in his abilities over time.  The defense then addressed the witness, who testified that Vance was averse to injuring others, had not injured anyone to the witness’s knowledge, and had tried to save lives and prevent injuries often at risk to himself.  Classic character witness stuff.

The next witness is Firestar, who testifies as Firestar and in her identity-concealing costume, which poses legal issues of its own.  This suggests that either the Marvel universe gives superheroes leeway to testify in costume or that the prosecutor didn’t want to push the issue, lest she lose her witness.  In this case, the defense was also unlikely to object to the witness’s costume and use of an alias.

In any event, Firestar reluctantly testifies that Vance could have stopped his father without resorting to deadly force.  This is curious, since she had no personal knowledge of Vance’s altercation with his father, but the question is not objected to (although Foggy does object to other questions on occasion).  This ends the prosecution’s case in chief.  It’s very strange that the prosecution did not itself call Vance’s mother, the only witness to the actual events that the prosecution could call, since Vance is protected by the Fifth Amendment and the victim is deceased.  But moving on…

The next witness is Ben Grimm, who testifies to Vance’s good character but also his ability to use his powers to prevent people from getting hurt.  After that, the defense calls Vance’s mother, who testifies about Arnold’s history of abuse.  On cross-examination she testifies that Vance had stopped his father once with his powers and that he could’ve stopped his father without killing him.  This ends the defense’s case.

During closing arguments, the defense emphasizes Vance’s good and caring nature and argues that Vance acted in self-defense.  The prosecution argues that Vance had the ability to stop his father without harming him.  To prove the point, the prosecutor pulls out a pistol, aims it at Vance, and fires it.  Vance uses his powers to capture not only the pistol (revealed to be a cap gun) but even the very smoke from the cap gun.  The defense demands a mistrial, and the judge denies the motion but hints that grounds for an appeal exist.  This is not completely unreasonable; despite the prosecution’s antics, judges are loathe to declare a mistrial, especially so close to the end of the trial, since it means an enormous waste of resources.

Curiously, the judge does not give the jury any instructions, which is odd because those are ordinarily an essential part of the trial, but we’re willing to give the comic book authors a pass on this, since jury instructions are usually very, very boring and technical. We’ll assume appropriate jury instructions were given.

In the end, the jury finds Vance not guilty of first degree murder but guilty of negligent homicide.  He is sentenced to fourteen months to three years in The Vault.  Curiously, Foggy suggests an appeal but not post-trial motions such as a motion to vacate the judgment or to set aside the sentence.  Vance declines to appeal and resigns himself to his sentence, but what if he had followed Foggy’s advice and appealed his conviction?

III.  A Little Appellate Procedure

Now some background on how appeals work. (Note: this is a little dry, so if you want to gloss over the legal details and get to the good part, skip to Section IV, or just check Wikipedia on the subject).

There are a lot of issues we’re going to gloss over (e.g., appellate jurisdiction, waiver, harmless vs. reversible error), but we’re going to go into a little detail about the idea of standard of review.  That is, even if an appeals court will consider an alleged error, how bad does it have to be in order for the court to reverse it?  In general, appeals courts are reluctant to address issues that were waived or forfeited, and they are also reluctant to disturb jury verdicts.  In New York, where this case took place, there is a two part test for overturning a jury verdict: legal sufficiency and weight of the evidence.

Legal sufficiency is defined in New York thus: “For a court to conclude…that a jury verdict is supported by sufficient evidence, the court must determine whether there is any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury on the basis of the evidence at trial and as a matter of law satisfy the proof and burden requirements for every element of the crime charged. If that is satisfied, then the verdict will be upheld by the intermediate appellate court on that review basis.” People v. Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 (Ct. App. N.Y. 1987).

And weight of the evidence is defined thus: “the appellate court must, like the trier of fact below, weigh the relative probative force of conflicting testimony and the relative strength of conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony. If it appears that the trier of fact has failed to give the evidence the weight it should be accorded, then the appellate court may set aside the verdict. Empowered with this unique factual review, intermediate appellate courts have been careful not to substitute themselves for the jury. Great deference is accorded to the factfinder’s opportunity to view the witnesses, hear the testimony and observe demeanor.” Id.

IV. The (Hypothetical) Appeal

With all of this background in mind, how might the appeal have gone?  Well, assuming the issues were property preserved, here’s what Foggy might have argued.

First, there was insufficient evidence to convict Vance of negligent homicide.  New York defines criminally negligent homicide thus: “A  person  is  guilty  of  criminally  negligent  homicide  when, with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.”  N.Y. Penal Law § 125.10. Not very helpful on its own; we need the definition of criminal negligence:

A person acts with criminal negligence  with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an  offense  when  he  fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance  exists.  The  risk  must  be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes  a  gross  deviation  from  the  standard  of  care  that  a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

N.Y. Penal Law § 15.05.  The key here is the second sentence.  The prosecution offered essentially no evidence that Vance’s telekinetic blast was a “gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation,” given that the situation was one of a heavily injured young adult being beaten by a grown man with no help in sight.  Vance’s blast may have been more than strictly necessary to end the confrontation, but there was no evidence that it was a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have done in the heat of the moment.

But failing that, there is the issue of self-defense.  The prosecution focused heavily on whether Vance could have used less force to stop his father.  This makes a certain amount of sense because New York defines self-defense thus:

A  person  may,  subject to the provisions of subdivision two, use physical force upon another person when and to the  extent he or she
reasonably believes such to be necessary to defend himself, herself or a third  person  from  what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by such other person

N.Y. Penal Law § 35.15(1).  Here the issue is whether Vance reasonably believed his violent telekinetic blast was necessary, which basically means whether the jury thought it was reasonable.  And the prosecution argued that no, it was not, since he could have used less force.  But there are special rules for the use of deadly force in self-defense:

A  person  may  not  use deadly physical force upon another person under circumstances specified in subdivision one unless:
(a) The actor reasonably believes that such other person is  using  or about  to use  deadly  physical  force. Even in such case, however, the actor may not use deadly physical force if he or she  knows  that  with complete  personal safety, to oneself and others he or she may avoid the necessity of so doing by retreating; except that the actor is  under  no duty to retreat if he or she is:
(i) in his or her dwelling and not the initial aggressor

N.Y. Penal Law § 35.15(2).  In this case, Vance was in his house and he was not the initial aggressor, so he had no duty to retreat.  Thus, he could use deadly force if he reasonably believed that his father was about to use deadly physical force, even if he could also have used less force.  There is a good argument to be made that such a belief would have been reasonable: Vance was already severely injured, his father had struck him quite forcefully already, his father had him pinned, his father had announced his extremely violent intentions, and there was no help in sight.  That’s pretty compelling stuff.

The problem here, however, is that Foggy didn’t really develop these issues at trial, apart from an oblique mention of self-defense in his closing argument.  The jury would likely have been given instructions related to self-defense, but without solid testimony or other evidence to support it, the jury could reasonably conclude that the weight of the evidence favored the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt.  The appellate court is under no obligation to make up for the defense’s mistakes.

V. Conclusion

It’s hard to say for sure what an appellate court would make of this case.  The prosecution’s case was a little weak, and there were strong arguments for self-defense.  Unfortunately, Foggy didn’t do such a hot job as Vance’s defense attorney, so the case wasn’t set up for appeal very well.  However, it’s a comic book, and we could just as easily assume that Foggy actually filled in all the gaps but the writers omitted the minutiae for the sake of storytelling.  Still, the Marvel universe is somewhat hostile to mutants, and appellate court judges are not immune to bias.  Ultimately, Vance likely had decent chances on appeal, probably better than most criminal defendants.

(And in case we sound a bit down on the writers, we should add that the legal elements are on par with a typical episode of Law & Order.  They didn’t do a perfect job, but it could have been much worse.)

33 responses to “The Trial (And Appeal) of Marvel Boy

  1. Law and Order: Gotham City. So overdue!

  2. N.Y. Penal Law § 35.15(2) doesn’t appear to expand the permissible use of force beyond what’s in (1). It’s an additional limitation on deadly force where the use of force is already kosher under (1). The section starts: “A person may not use deadly physical force… unless:” It doesn’t say anything additional about when you may use force. Therefore, the fact that he could have used lesser force to defend himself is very bad, because (1) only authorizes force to the extent reasonably believed necessary.

    • I see the argument you’re making, but the New York courts seem to interpret the statute differently:

      “Generally, the force permitted is related to the degree of force reasonably believed necessary to repel various threats. Thus, one may use physical force upon another if “he reasonably believes such to be necessary to defend himself from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by such other person” or he may use “deadly physical force” if “[h]e reasonably believes that such other person is using or about to use deadly physical force” against him.” Matter of Y.K., 87 N.Y.2d 430, 433 (Ct. App. N.Y. 1996) (emphasis added).

      My conclusion is that the requirement to use only reasonably necessary force applies only when the assailant presents a threat of non-deadly force. When the assailant presents a threat of deadly force, then deadly force in self-defense may be justified even if a lesser force would have been sufficient.

      Consider also the case of People v. Watts, 57 N.Y.2d 299 (Ct. App. N.Y. 1982). There the Court of Appeals simply stated “The defense of justification, as raised in the present case, permits one to use deadly physical force on another when one reasonably believes that deadly physical force is being used or imminently will be used by such other person.” There is no mention of a requirement that lesser force be used if it is available or that the defendant reasonably believe that the use of deadly is force is necessary to repel the attack.

  3. He is on the floor, being beaten to a pulp, by a man who says “You are a freak! It’s going to stop–if I have to pound it out of you…” Since his “freakishness” is an inherent part of his being, isn’t it reasonable to assume that means his opponent means to kill him? Further, in that situation, is it reasonable to believe he would maintain control of his abilities to the extent required to prevent death? Isn’t this akin to saying that a normal man, in the same circumstances, should “reasonably” know he had punched a man hard enough to kill him?

    • Death or improvised lobotomy by slow torture. Take your pick.

      Either way, Foggy Nelson would have decent odds in appellate court on Vance’s behalf.

  4. ” Unfortunately, Foggy didn’t do such a hot job as Vance’s defense attorney, so the case wasn’t set up for appeal very well.”

    Largely because there’s a high probability the writers worked backwards from their conclusion (Vance goes to the Vault) rather than forward from the circumstances.

    • Entirely probable, given the needs and process of comics writing in general.

    • Or they could have been trying not to send the wrong message. He DID kill his father after all and Marvel might have been reluctant to portray that as okay.

  5. I’m not familiar with the story, but was reading up on it in Wikipedia. It mentions that his mother was struck when trying to protect him just before his father started beating him. Was she knocked unconscious, and that’s why she couldn’t testify?

    • I don’t think she was knocked unconscious. After Arnold punches Vance, Norma puts her hand on Arnold’s shoulder and tries to talk to him (“Arnold–!”), but Arnold shoves her away (“Norma–Stay out of this!). Her eyes are closed as she’s pushed back, and she evidently falls to floor, but she’s shown awake and alert four panels later when Vance’s telekinetic blast strikes Arnold (“Arnold–?”).

      And in any event, she’s called by the defense to testify. It’s just odd that the prosecution didn’t call her first but rather took her up on cross-examination.

    • Even if she had been unconscious during the actual use of powers she still could have testified about the events immediately beforehand as well as testimony about son and father in general.

  6. I’m curious if you guys have a particular standard for the sort of questions you like to see — I admit I’m curious about my own still.

    A more general question: it sounds like Foggy kind of muffed this one. Is he portrayed generally as an incompetent lawyer?

    • We get a lot of questions, almost all of them great. Unfortunately, it takes a while to research and write an answer, so we’ve developed quite a backlog to work through. On the bright side, that means you all have a lot of material to look forward to! Your question in particular (one of several we’ve received related to the Green Lantern Corps) presents some interesting issues, and we will get to it.

      Foggy has been portrayed differently over the years, but my understanding is that these days he’s mostly written as a competent lawyer on par with Matt Murdock. I don’t think this story intentionally portrays him as incompetent at all; quite the opposite, in fact.

      • I admit I’m not even a terribly informed amateur, but it seems to have been a tactical error for him to have not focused on the self defense argument, especially given that Marvel Boy was himself badly injured at the time and thus not able to react as rationally as he might have had he merely come home to encounter his abusive father.

        Of course I realize the “out of character” reasons for why it went that way – they had worked back from the decisions, but what would be the strategic reasons behind it, from a trial lawyer perspective?

      • Tom:

        I can imagine a couple of scenarios: In one, Vance has instructed Foggy not to use the self-defense tactic, because he does not want the general public to get the impression that mutants can so easily lose control of their abilities. In another, the judge might have ruled self-defense as unavailable in a pre-trial hearing.

  7. Are Mutants currently a Protected Class in the Marvel Universe? Was the assault on Vance a hate crime? Not that it would likely have an effect legally on an insanity defense. And for that matter, I don’t know what the status of New York’s hate crime legislation was in 1992. But I will say that Fabian Niceaza’s run on New Warriors was much better than anyone expected it would be when the team was introduced. (The presence of a skateboarding teen named “Night Thrasher” didn’t give comics fans of the time much reason for optimism.)

    • Even if they aren’t a protected class, wouldn’t it be reasonable for a member of (class) to consider himself under deadly attack, if attacked while injured by a person with a history of attacking him who also is shouting, “I’m going to beat the (class) out of you!”

      The issue then would be that they’d have a reasonable case for feeling themselves in danger of their lives. I don’t know if it would fly in a live courtroom but it seems like it would have been a legal defense for a homosexual, at least.

    • We’ve talked about various theories under which mutants (and innately superpowered beings generally) might be considered a protected class. Here’s part one, part two, and part three. I don’t think mutants are currently recognized as a protected class. The New York hate crimes law specifies that it applies to crimes “committed in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person.” Of these it’s possible that race or ancestry would apply to mutants, since mutant status seems to be genetic.

      But the New York hate crimes law was passed in 2000, so it was not in force at the time. And, as you say, it wouldn’t actually affect a claim of self-defense (I assume you meant self-defense rather than insanity). But had Arnold Astrovik survived it might have applied to his own crime of assault or aggravated assault (again, had the law been in effect at the time).

    • Hate crimes seem to have trouble in courts.

  8. With respect to the Marvel Universe’s rules on superheroes testifying, an (I believe early 90s) story line of Spider-Man had Spider-Man testifying in costume at the trial of Curt Connors (the Lizard). Spider-Man was acting as a character witness for Connors, and the prosecutor objected that there was no way to know that this was the “real” Spider-Man. The judge responded that the fact that he was hanging above the witness chair, upside-down from a web attached to the ceiling, was sufficient for the judge to accept his identity.

  9. “Spider-Man was acting as a character witness for Connors, and the prosecutor objected that there was no way to know that this was the “real” Spider-Man. The judge responded that the fact that he was hanging above the witness chair, upside-down from a web attached to the ceiling, was sufficient for the judge to accept his identity.”

    This story provides an interesting answer to the often discussed-here question of heroes verifying their identity in court without removing their mask, especially for a Marvel universe that lacks DC’s 12th Amendment. Very few lack a relatively unique ability; Captain America might, for example, demonstrate that his shield is indestructible and that he has pinpoint accuracy when throwing it. Thor could open up a small space-time vortex with Mjol’nir. Wolverine could, rather dramatically, demonstrate his self-healing ability after being shot.

    (Yes, it’s possible that a shapeshifter or another person with a similar power could impersonate all of these abilities in some way, but such risks theoretically exist with any witness, powered or not.)

  10. One angle not covered is the possibility that the father, Arnold, might be a former boxer. If so, then his fists are considered lethal weapons in some jurisdictions. I agree with the comment that said that the writers of the story probably worked backwards.

  11. Keep up the great work on this blog! Have you thought of getting a reply from the comic’s writer Fabian Nicieza?

  12. Let’s take another hypothetical here. If he changed his mind and decided to appeal and sought you out as counsel, would you seek a new trial on the grounds of ineffective representation on the basis of these concerns?

    • Ineffective assistance of counsel is very, very rarely successful, especially when it was a privately hired attorney chosen by the defendant (in this case Foggy offered his services pro bono as far as I can tell, but Vance still chose to accept his representation). And it’s not like Foggy was utterly incompetent, even if you don’t cut the writers any slack or assume we didn’t see the whole trial. So I probably wouldn’t bother with the argument. It wouldn’t be outright frivolous, but it would be so borderline that it would probably irritate the appeals court judges.

  13. Are there not laws that specifically deal with abused persons and the perception of self-defense? I was under the impression that, at least here in Canada, there are specific laws or ways of interpreting them that mitigate a person’s culpability in acts of homicide if they have been the subject of frequent familial abuse.

    • That’s a good point. There are US cases and statutes dealing with that kind of thing, usually in the context of abused spouses, which the law usually refers to as battered woman syndrome. By the time of the Astrovik case in 1992, the New York courts had recognized that “proof of violent acts previously committed by the victim against the defendant as well as any evidence that the defendant was aware of specific prior violent acts by the victim upon third parties is admissible as bearing upon the reasonableness of defendant’s apprehension of danger at the time of the encounter.” People v. Torres, 488 N.Y.S.2d 358, 360 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1985). Furthermore, “expert [psychological] evidence is admissible as having a substantial bearing on the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the shooting and is, therefore, relevant to the jury’s evaluation of the reasonableness of her perceptions and behavior at that time.” Id. at 362. So yes, such evidence would likely have been relevant, but Foggy didn’t put on an appropriate expert, nor did he specifically argue that the jury should take into account the victim’s history of abusing both Vance and his mother.

      • What, exactly, was Vance paying Foggy for? Mr. Nelson seems to have skipped a few choice points for defense.

      • I believe Foggy was working for free. It’s hard to say what he skipped and what was hidden by the writers for convenience, clarity, and flow. If we read the comics in the most charitable light (i.e. only count mistakes that we actually see Foggy make and assume that he committed no errors of omission), then he did a pretty good job by the standards of a fictional attorney, especially one outside the police procedural and courtroom drama genres.

  14. What would need to have happened differently for the courtroom stuff to be accurate, Foggy to be represented as a talented lawyer but Vance still ending up in the Vault?

    • Assuming the facts of the case stayed the same: Foggy could have properly argued self-defense but the jury could have decided Vance’s actions were unreasonable under the circumstances. Vance could have declined to appeal, just as in the comics, since appellate courts are reluctant to disturb jury verdicts.

      More realistically, the facts could have been slightly altered so that it was less obvious that Vance was justified in using deadly force. Then the jury verdict would have been more believable even if Foggy raised the self-defense argument.

  15. Mr Daily, as part of your assumption that Foggy “off panel” did all the right things, would that include bringing up the prior abuse at least as a mitigating factor in terms of sentencing? By which, I’m asking if you think Foggy might have brought it up as a “crime of passion” during the sentencing phase. Vance under normal circumstances would not have used lethal levels of force (and he would NEVER use them deliberately in any event).

    Could that explain the relatively light sentence given the severity of the incident?

    Or am I wrong in thinking 1/5-3 years (meaning parole much less than that typically) is a light sentence for Negligent Homicide?

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