Several readers have inquired about The Trial of Reed Richards (aka The Trial of Galactus), which is a great John Byrne-era Fantastic Four storyline. There are several legal issues to discuss here, but we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the story line. Readers who are already familiar with the story can skip to section II.
I. The Story
In Fantastic Four #243-44, Reed Richards saved the life of Galactus, a powerful creature with a nasty habit of devouring inhabited planets. Later, in Fantastic Four 261-62, the survivors of Galactus’s prior attacks put Reed on trial for the deaths caused by Galactus after Reed saved him, most notably the deaths of 7 billion Skrulls when Galactus consumed the Skrull throneworld.
(Actually, first the survivors sentence Reed to a summary execution, but after a brief fight between the rest of the Fantastic Four and Reed’s would-be executioners, the Watcher intervenes, and then the survivors decide to hold a trial.)
Princess Lilandra of the Shi’ar Empire appoints herself prosecutor. Apparently Lilandra had appeared to Reed after he saved Galactus and warned him “Should [Galactus] consume any world known to us you will be in part responsible…and will be held responsible for it…to the full extent of Shi’ar law!”
Lilandra first calls a survivor of the destruction of the Skrull throneworld. Following that, she calls innumerable survivors of prior Galactus attacks to establish that Reed knew full well of Galactus’s pattern of planet-eating.
In the face of the prosecution’s evidence, Reed pleads guilty—but not to a crime, rather to the fact of saving Galactus’s life. Reed argues that doing so was no crime because Galactus is a force of nature and part of some greater plan for good in the universe. To this end, the god Odin is summoned by the Watcher to testify as to Galactus’s origin, as told to him by Thor, who was told by Galactus himself. Odin testifies that Galactus was created at the beginning of the universe, the lone survivor of the end of the prior universe, and thus Galactus is a natural force.
Alas, Odin’s testimony fails to persuade everyone. And so Galactus himself shows up to testify that Reed’s act was “honorable and good.” Unsurprisingly, the testimony of an alleged mass murderer whose life was saved by the defendant is unpersuasive. So the Watcher and Galactus combine powers to summon Eternity, the embodiment of the entire universe. Eternity links the minds of all of the creatures in the court room, allowing them to see the Cosmic Truth that Galactus is a necessary force in the universe. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, Reed is exonerated and the Fantastic Four return to Earth.
So that’s the story. We don’t know anything about Shi’ar law or M’ndavian procedure, so we’ll analyze the case from an earthly legal perspective.
II. The Legal Issues
A. Preliminary Issues
There are a whole host of legal issues here, but we’ll stick to the big ones. Right off the bat we can say that the appeal of Reed’s summary execution is a kind of habeas corpus petition, essentially a demand that the authorities prove that they have the right to detain (and for that matter execute) Reed.
Next: the issue of Reed’s extradition. Here we can take some issue. The alleged crime (saving Galactus) occurred on Earth, Reed is a citizen of a nation of Earth, he was on Earth at the time of his forcible extradition, and it doesn’t appear that the US or UN have agreed to any kind of extradition treaty with the Shi’ar or the ad hoc Galactus-survivor court. On the other hand, Reed seems to waive the jurisdictional issue and accept the legitimacy of the trial, which by Reed’s choice is conducted under M’ndavian procedures, “the most perfect legal system in the galaxy.”
B. The Prosecution’s Case
Now we get into the trial proper. Lilandra’s argument is that Reed saved the life of someone he knew would go on to kill others, and therefore Reed is guilty of a crime, though the specific crime is not named. We can’t speak to Shi’ar law, but under the US legal system Reed’s actions would probably not be a crime. There are three main theories under which Reed might be liable: conspiracy, accomplice or accessory liability, and facilitation. However, the first two require a level of intent that Reed did not possess (i.e. he did not intend for Galactus to go on to commit any crimes).
That leaves facilitation. In New York, where we believe the alleged crime took place, facilitation is, in general, “a kind of accessorial conduct in which the actor aids the commission of a crime with knowledge that he is doing so but without any specific intent to participate therein or to benefit therefrom.” Staff Notes of the Commission on Revision of the Penal Law. Proposed New York Penal Law. McKinney’s Spec. Pamph. (1964), p. 328. Here’s the definition of the most general form of facilitation:
A person is guilty of criminal facilitation in the fourth degree when, believing it probable that he is rendering aid to a person who intends to commit a crime, he engages in conduct which provides such person with means or opportunity for the commission thereof and which in fact aids such person to commit a felony.
N.Y. Penal Law § 115.00. At first glance this looks pretty bad, and it is a closer case than conspiracy or accomplice liability. Again, the answer turns on intent, but in this case it’s Galactus’s intent that matters, not Reed’s.
At the time Galactus’s life was saved, Galactus did not have the required intent to commit a crime. Sure, at some point Galactus was likely to get hungry and eat a planet, but at that particular moment he did not have the intent to eat any particular planet. Without that intent element, Reed couldn’t commit the crime of facilitation.
But even supposing Reed’s conduct would have been a crime, he may still offer the defense of necessity, which we’ll discuss below.
C. The Defense’s Case
First off, Reed’s guilty plea is completely backwards. Rather than pleading guilty to the fact of saving Galactus’s life but arguing that his conduct was not a crime, it would make more sense to say that he stipulates to the facts but maintains a plea of not guilty. But that’s a pretty technical point. There are bigger problems with the defense’s case, specifically Odin’s testimony.
Odin’s testimony is a gigantic ball of hearsay problems, and we don’t think there’s any answer to it. Odin is trying to offer the rare double hearsay: the words of Galactus as spoken to Thor as spoken to Odin. It would also have been hearsay if Thor had been the one to testify, since there’s no exception that would apply there, either. What’s more, all of the hearsay issues could have been circumvented since Galactus himself showed up and so could have given the same testimony properly.
Finally we have Eternity’s testimony, which basically amounts to the defense of necessity mentioned above: saving Galactus was a lesser harm to the universe than allowing him to die, even though he would go on to destroy other planets. So even if Reed’s conduct would have been a crime, he may still claim the defense of necessity. We’re not so sure that his actions were actually reasonable under the circumstances (i.e. an ordinary reasonable person would probably not have made the same choice), but who’s going to argue with Eternity?
The Trial of Reed Richards is a classic and enjoyable Fantastic Four story, and we’ll take John Byrne’s word for it that M’ndavian procedure and Shi’ar law were followed in the comic. It’s interesting to note, though, that roughly the same result would probably have been achieved under US law, in some cases for the same or similar reasons.