The Trial of Captain America

The Trial of Captain America was a 5 issue Captain America story arc covering the trial of James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, who took over as Captain America following Steve Rogers’s apparent death.  There are a bunch of legal issues here—mostly handled pretty well—so let’s get right to it.  Spoilers ahoy.

I. The Charges

By way of background: In 1945 Bucky was found by the Russians after the plane he was in exploded, plunging him into the icy North Atlantic.  The Russians revive Bucky and take advantage of his amnesia to reprogram him as an assassin.  During his career as the Winter Soldier, Bucky kills numerous US citizens.  When word of this leaks out decades later, Bucky submits to a criminal trial in order to clear his name.

So, are these charges appropriate?  There’s no statute of limitations for murder, so when they occurred is unimportant.  But what about where?  No doubt some of the murders occurred “within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States” as required by the federal murder statute, 18 USC 1111.  But what if Bucky murdered a US citizen abroad?  Could he still be charged in a US court for that?  As it turns out, maybe.  18 USC 2332 criminalizes, among other things, the murder of US nationals abroad, but it was only enacted in 1986.  Bucky could potentially dodge being charged for a few early crimes that way, but it only takes one successful murder charge to make for a serious prison sentence.

II. Legal Ethics

Steve Rogers asks a friend (and former girlfriend) of his, Bernie Rosenthal, to act as Bucky’s defense attorney.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that Steve not only sits in on Bucky’s first meeting with Bernie but actively participates in discussion of trial strategy.  We don’t see them discuss anything too sensitive, but this is a great way to waive attorney-client privilege.  Only the client can waive the privilege, but the simplest way to do it is to let a non-privileged person (like Steve) in on the confidential information.  To protect against this, Bernie probably should have asked Steve to leave the room lest he be called to testify about their discussion.  At the very least she should have informed Bucky that letting Steve stay in the room would risk waiving the privilege.

As Kate Spencer did in Manhunter vol. 2, Bernie goes on a Larry King Live-esque talk show to argue her case in the court of public opinion.  Unlike in  Manhunter, this comic doesn’t show her saying anything particularly problematic.  In fact, the host says “many would argue [Bucky] has already been tried in the media”, to which Bernie replies “And that’s why I’m here, Barry.  For weeks we’ve had a 24 hour-a-day bashing of my client with no balance whatsoever.”  This could be seen as an invocation of ABA Model Rule 3.6(c):

a lawyer may make a statement that a reasonable lawyer would believe is required to protect a client from the substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by the lawyer or the lawyer’s client. A statement made pursuant to this paragraph shall be limited to such information as is necessary to mitigate the recent adverse publicity.

(A side note: Steve, Bernie, and Bucky discuss whether to put Bucky on the stand, with Bernie against it, Steve initially for it, and Bucky agreeing with Bernie.  While most issues of trial strategy are ultimately at the discretion of the attorney, whether or not a criminal defendant takes the stand is up to the defendant.  ABA Model Rule 1.2(a).  So while Bernie can (wisely) counsel Bucky not to take the stand, Bucky could have gone against that advise.  The same is true of the decision to waive the right to a jury trial, which Bucky does.)

III. Cameras in the Court Room

The judge in the case bars cameras from the courtroom in order to avoid a media circus.  This is a curious thing to mention because it’s a federal case, and cameras are forbidden in federal courts, outside of a very recent pilot program.  Still, a judge has pretty much complete control over the court room, and even if cameras were potentially allowed he could easily prohibit them instead.

IV. “Doctor-Patient Confidentiality”

Sin, daughter of the Red Skull, leaks a video of a interview from a psychiatric hospital in which she accuses Bucky of being the Red Skull’s willing accomplice (and not, as Bucky claimed, mind controlled).  It’s strongly hinted that Sin made up the accusations on the tape knowing that they would be used in the trial.  In any case, the prosecution submits the video as evidence.  While Steve and Bernie are discussing the tape (another ethically shaky move), Steve asks “is it even admissible?”  Bernie replies “I don’t know.  Leaking your own psych interviews to the press probably invalidates doctor-patient confidentiality.”  This is a pretty serious misstatement of the physician-patient privilege for two reasons.

First, doctor-patient confidentiality refers to a doctor’s ethical obligation to keep what a patient tells them confidential.  The physician-patient privilege is the evidentiary privilege that allows a patient to prevent a physician from testifying as to certain things in certain circumstances.

Second, yes, leaking the tape to the press would waive the privilege, but as the holder of the privilege Sin was always free to do so.  The privilege prevents no problems with regard to the tape’s admissibility as long as it is clear that Sin was responsible for the leak.

It’s also worth noting that the federal courts do not recognize the physician-patient privilege.  See, e.g., United States v. Bek, 493 F.3d 790, 801-02 (7th Cir. 2007) (“we can find no circuit authority in support of a physician-patient privilege … and we can find no reason to create one now”).  However, they do recognize the psychotherapist-patient privilege.  See Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1 (1996).  So depending on who Sin was talking to in the interview, a privilege might or might not have existed in the first place, at least as far as the federal courts are concerned.

However, all of this misses the real reason the tape is very likely inadmissible: it’s hearsay because the tapes are Sin’s out of court statements offered to prove the truth of what she’s saying (i.e. that Bucky was a willing accomplice of the Red Skull).  Further, none of the hearsay exemptions or exceptions apply.  Sin isn’t discussing the details of a conspiracy with Bucky that she was a part of while she was a part of it, so Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E) doesn’t apply.  Although it’s a quasi-medical interview these particular statements don’t seem like they were made “for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment,” so 803(4) doesn’t apply.  Sin is unavailable to testify, but her testimony doesn’t meet any of the 804(b) exceptions.  The 807 / 804(b)(5) catchall exception could apply, but we find it extremely hard to believe that Sin’s interview has the necessary “equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness.”  She is, after all, a delusional psychopath with a known vendetta against Captain America.  It’s hard to get less trustworthy.

There are more legal issues  in this storyline to talk about.  Check out part 2 here!

3 responses to “The Trial of Captain America

  1. John McSorley

    Hi there.

    Just to clarify I am a UK Citzen so what i say may not follow US law.

    When a person is judged to not have mental capacity to make informed desicions about there welfare then a ‘suitably qualified officer of the court’ is required to do so for them as part of the mental capacity team. Not an Expert but my understanding is that this would usually include the doctor so as such the leaking of the tape could be seen as part of the doctors privelege (i personally know of two cases where individuals are judged to not be competent about whom they can contact – mainly i think to stop the local MP from getting 2000 page letters) or at least done at his discretion. Whilst the details may vary could some sort of argument along these lines be pursued?

    • Melanie Koleini

      I’m not a lawyer, but I know a little about what happens when a mental illness impairs decision making. Getting someone declared legally incompetent can be really hard in the US unless the ill person agrees to go along with it. Because of this, the ill person often chooses who they want to make decisions for them and then the court approves the choice. In practice, the decision maker is often a parent or an adult child of the ill person. It could also be a lawyer. I have neverherd of the decision maker being the person’s own doctor.

      In any case, once the video was aired on the news I don’t think the judge would be worried about doctor/patient privilege of a third party. My non-lawyer opinion is that the video is hear say and inadmissible because of that.

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