Manhunter, Volume 1

This is the first post in a new series analyzing the legal issues raised by the 2004-09 Marc Andreyko run of Manhunter.  These issues cover Kate Spencer’s turn as the eponymous superhero.  By day, Spencer is a federal prosecutor who later becomes a criminal defense attorney for supervillains.  As with She-Hulk and Daredevil there are a lot of overt legal issues here but also a lot of more subtle ones.  There will be spoilers, but we plan to cover the issues chronologically, so if you want to read along then we suggest picking up the trade paperbacks (Manhunter vols. 1-5).

I. Not Guilty by Reason of Genetic Anomaly?

Early on in the first issue, Kate is prosecuting a case against Copperhead, a metagene-enhanced supervillain with a nasty habit of killing and eating people.   The defense stipulates to the facts of the case but argues that Copperhead is a genetic anomaly, possibly insane, and should not be held to the standards of human behavior.  Rather than being executed, the defense argues that he should be confined and studied.  The jury finds him “not guilty by reason of genetic anomaly” and he is sent to the Death Valley Metahuman Research Facility.

Assuming that “not guilty by reason of genetic anomaly” is not a defined verdict in the DC universe, could a jury do this anyway?  The answer is a clear yes.  For better or worse, a jury in the US system can find a defendant not guilty for any reason or no reason, even against all the weight of the evidence, and an acquittal cannot be appealed by the prosecution.

However, as we’ve discussed before, an acquittal (e.g. by reason of insanity) does not necessarily mean that the defendant won’t be involuntarily committed.  A defendant can lack the requisite mental capacity to be guilty of a crime (or as the defense appeared to argue in this case, the requisite personhood) yet still be a danger to themselves or others, justifying involuntary commitment.  So again the story is accurate in that Copperhead could be confined at a research institute despite the acquittal.

All that said, the defense theory is a strange mishmash of insanity and lack of personhood, which is itself a novel theory (“my client can’t be guilty, your honor, he isn’t even human” hasn’t been tried in the real world as far as we know).  It would have worked just as well to say that the defendant was legally insane and the underlying mental defect was caused by the genetic anomaly.  Still, off to a good start.

II. Child Endangerment

Here’s where things start to get dicey.  Kate’s son Ramsey finds her staff, which Kate had barely hidden in her house.  Curious, he activates it, causing an explosion that severely injures him.  Kate lies about the cause of the explosion, saying it was a gas leak.  It’s unclear why DCFS didn’t investigate, but supposing they had, what might Kate have been charged with?

One possibility is child endangerment.  Cal.Penal Code § 273a(a) states “Any person who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death … willfully causes or permits [a] child to be placed in a situation where his or her person or health is endangered, shall be punished by imprisonment.”  Other options include criminal storage of a firearm if the staff is considered a firearm and reckless possession of a destructive device otherwise.

III. Blackmail

Later, Kate blackmails a former supervillain gadget-guy, Dylan Battles, into repairing and maintaining her equipment.  In particular, she threatens to reveal to his wife that he used to work for supervillains and is now in the witness protection program.

This is, as the comic points out, a crime.  Specifically, in the comic’s setting of California it’s extortion.  Cal. Penal Code § 518-19.

518. Extortion is the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, … induced by a wrongful use of force or fear.

519. Fear, such as will constitute extortion, may be induced by a threat … to expose any secret affecting him or them.

Although Kate primarily extorts services, some property comes along with it as well.

Further, by asking Dylan to break the law (the comic doesn’t say what but it’s probably weapons-related), Kate is committing both the crime of solicitation and an ethical breach.  California Rule of Professional Conduct 3-210 prohibits attorneys from “advis[ing] the violation of any law.

IV. Conclusion

Kate’s actions expose the contradictions inherent in every vigilante character: they often break the law while nominally trying to uphold it.  Sometimes the authors call that out explicitly, but sometimes they don’t.  There’s a lot to talk about in this series, so look out for more posts coming soon.

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