The Trial of Reed Richards

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?

III. Conclusion

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.

21 responses to “The Trial of Reed Richards

  1. I wonder if a better analog to Richards’s actions would be to that of saving a dangerous animal and then letting it loose (particularly since Richards himself admits that Galactus is a “force of nature” and given that Galactus’s crimes amount to nothing more than his desire to satiate his hunger).

  2. Could Odin’s testimony be legitimate if the court accepts that he’s an expert on the subject? After all, experts have to learn many of the things they know from somewhere and we don’t question this–if an expert learned something from a book, we don’t require that the author of the book go on the witness stand instead of the expert. So can he claim he learned it from Galactus like one might from a book?

    • Ah, in fact Odin is called specifically as an expert on Galactus, and experts may base their testimony on otherwise inadmissible evidence, including hearsay evidence. However, that inadmissible evidence should not be disclosed to the jury “unless the court determines that their probative value in assisting the jury to evaluate the expert’s opinion substantially outweighs their prejudicial effect.” FRE 703. Here the court didn’t make such a determination. So Odin’s testimony might be limited to something like “in my expert opinion, Galactus is a force of nature.”

  3. Although hard to manage, could one ask the question of a flipped version? In that, if it was already established that Reed was dealing with a force of nature (whether Galactus or, say, tornadoes), and saved that force from not happening, would he be guilty? One big thing here is that the force of nature can stop existing. … not quite sure how that works.

    Be an interesting “What if?” of “What if Galactus died?”

  4. I’m actually reminded of the trial and conviction of Dr. Samuel Mudd who was charged for his presumed role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (he treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the shooting). Although there was no evidence that Mudd knew that the assassination would take place, he was still convicted and imprisoned.

    • That was a fairly dubious moment in American legal history (though not our worst). However the good doctor, as you mentioned, had no idea what Booth was involved in. In this example Reed definitely knew that Galactus would sooner or later do this sort of thing again.

  5. Damage magnet

    I am surprised nobody has asked about civil liability.

    To put it simply i would have thought somebody could make the claim that whilst not criminally convicted for saving him he could be seen as contributing to further future damages and as such liable to pay for those damages. In essence if you cant convict him then beggar him instead?

    Iti would not be a huge stretch (pun intended) for Mr Fantastic to be in lifelong penal servitude making restitution for the damage caused.
    What am I missing?

    • With civil liability the case is much more clear cut. Generally speaking you aren’t liable for the intentional torts of others, so although Galactus would not have eaten the Skrull throneworld but for Reed’s intervention, Galactus’s intentional torts (e.g. wrongful death and conversion on a planetary scale) are superseding causes. Galactus alone would be liable in tort.

      But even if Reed were civilly liable, penal servitude would not be an appropriate result in the US. By its very terms, penal servitude is a punishment, not a method of compensation, and involuntary servitude is disallowed by the 13th Amendment except as punishment for a crime.

  6. I never understood this story. How is saving a bad guys life tantamount to criminal activity in it’s own right. Regardless of whether Reed knew that Galactus was going to eat some more planets or not.

    With Romeo’s example of Dr. Mudd I believe he was charged with aiding and abetting which, given that the court apparently proved that Mudd knew about the assassination, seems totally logical. Mudd wasn’t prosecuting for setting Boothe’s leg he was prosecuting for feeding him and letting him stay the night there.

    I feel accusing Reed of murder for saving Galactus is like accusing Adolf Hitler’s doctor of the holocaust.

  7. I wonder how this would apply to double jeopardy?
    Reed Richards effectively waived extradition to be tried in a “foreign” court. He also basically chose which court would try him. Suppose someone else committed a heinous crime – say, Green Goblin sets off a bomb that kills Spiderman. Then the Latverian police immediately show up and whisk him away. GG waives his right of extradition and allows himself to be tried in Latverian court, since they are the most perfect legal system he knows. In a not-so-amazing result he is found not guilty of murder. Does this set up any kind of double jeopardy situation when he goes back to bug-free New York? Could he claim that he has already been tried and found innocent if he gets arrested for this particular crime?

    • That’s a good question. The answer is “it’s complicated.” Most extradition treaties prohibit extraditing defendants who have already been convicted, acquitted, or who are currently being tried. But that only flows one way. Most treaties are silent on other arrangements (e.g. a defendant who has already been convicted or acquitted in the requesting state and may be subject to another trial if they are extradited; or a defendant who has already been convicted or acquitted in a third state). The general rule in international law appears to be that double jeopardy protections in extradition treaties are the explicit exception rather than the implicit rule. So unless a treaty specifically protects a given defendant, he or she is not protected.

      So in your example Green Goblin was not extradited via an extradition treaty between the US and Latveria (and indeed I doubt there is one in the Marvel universe), so it’s not so clear the double jeopardy principles would apply.

  8. I’d like to delve into “facilitation” as allegedly performed in this case. Let’s say that I have at my mercy a man who I know is a criminal, who I would not wish to commit further crimes, who I know WILL commit further crimes if he lives, and who I have no power to even compel into the custody of proper authorities.

    Situation A: This man is “at my mercy” because, like Reed, I am in a unique position to save his life. He will die unless I save him. It is within my power to do so. There is no time to get proper authorities who COULD detain him (or it is otherwise impossible to stabilize his condition without making him impossible to contain or control).

    There is no “duty to rescue,” from what has been said. But is it a crime to rescue this person, if I KNOW he will go on to commit crimes if I let him live? Does it matter if he INTENDS to or not? Can I really be charged with facilitation for merely saving his life?

    Does the situation change if he’s “dying” because I am all that’s keeping him from falling off a cliff vs. I being a doctor? Does the doctor’s case change if he stumbles across this person in the street vs. if this person is wheeled into the ER during the doctor’s shift? Does it change if, in self-defense, the doctor used a virus he knew would disable this person, but now has the capability to cure it before it kills this person?

    Situation B: He is at my mercy because he is temporarily weakened, but regaining strength. I have it in my power to kill him, now, but if I do not, I will no longer be able later on. There is no time or capacity to get somebody here who COULD contain or control him without killing him.

    I assume that, if I choose to kill him, acting as a private citizen, solely on the knowledge that if I do not, he WILL commit more crimes, I am still guilty of murder, given that I’m not a court and certainly didn’t give him due process. If I do NOT kill him, can I be accused of facilitation since it was in my power to prevent him from committing those crimes?

  9. John J. Vecchione

    Here is an argument for Odin’s testimony not being hearsay. Just as records of religious institutions like the Catholic Church are admissable (such as batismal certificates) it strikes me that the testimony of a living god might be such a record. There are today “nordic pagans” so its not completely an extinct religion and if the record is kept by immortal memory rather than paper, whose to argue?

    • I’d like to think that the “divinity” of Marvel and DCU gods is something that isn’t readily believed by the majority of people.

      /Mr. Terrific.

    • Just because it involves creatures generally considered ‘gods’ doesn’t mean they’re infallible or incapable of uttering lies. Even the Christian Bible has instances where God acted in ways that were at best dubious and at worst crimes against humanity (they mostly seem to show up in the Old Testament).

  10. A Late Replier

    So, I’m glad to be able to finally contribute something. This is a great site and the cause of some non-trivial lost productivity at times.

    At any rate, on the issue of “extradition,” mightn’t this be more akin to the kinds of extraterritorial abductions at issue in the Israeli trial in A.G. Israel v. Eichmann, (1968) 36 ILR 18 (District Court)? Eichmann was abducted from Argentina but the courts said, effectively, it may be illegal but the victim is the state, not the defendant. That is, the US might have a complaint against Shi’ar but Reed can’t get out the trial because of that.

    • David Johnston

      Yes. The lack or even the presence of an extradition treaty hasn’t stopped nations such as Israel and notably the U.S. from trying people who have been abducted from foreign jurisdictions to face charges. Reed had to realize that trying to stand on national sovereignty would at most cause a war between the United States and several interstellar powers. I don’t like those odds.

  11. Me thinks Reed could have won this on procedural grounds. Forum non-conveniens to say the least (if we are applying US law).

    • That’s tricky, actually. First, Reed apparently waived the venue argument, but what’s more, witness availability doesn’t seem to be a problem. The court manages to summon Odin, Galactus, and even Eternity itself. The whole trial evidently takes no more than a day, and the Fantastic Four are returned to Earth promptly.

      And it’s worth noting that forum non conveniens wouldn’t win the trial for Reed, just change the venue. I think at best the trial would have been moved to Earth (or Earth orbit).

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