The fourth season of True Blood started up a few weeks ago, so it seems a fitting time to discuss the various legal implications of that setting. The series is based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris, but we’re going to focus on the TV show because neither of us have actually read the novels (yet!). There’s also a comic book series.
For those who don’t know, the premise of True Blood and the novels upon which it is based is that vampires, along with various other supernatural beings like dryads, werewolves, fairies, etc., are real and have been around forever. These vampires are a lot more like the good old bloody vampires we find in Dracula than the sparkly, limp-wristed pretty-boys or hideous, predatory monsters of recent fiction. They’re essentially dead humans animated by magic. They’re immortal, possessed of superhuman abilities—strength, speed, flight, a form of hypnosis—which increase as they age. They’re immune to most diseases and can heal rapidly, but they burn in sunlight and are poisoned and weakened by silver. And their blood acts as a powerful, unpredictable, and highly addictive drug as well as supernatural healing agent when consumed by normal humans. They’ve been living in a sort of shadow society for centuries, always on the borders and dark places of whatever culture they happen to occupy.
The conceit which starts the action of the series is that in the late 1990s, scientists in Japan finally figured out how to synthesize real human blood in the laboratory. Exactly how this is done is not made clear, and thus far isn’t important. What is important is that for the first time, vampires can exist without feeding on the blood of living humans. A faction within the vampire community took the opportunity to make vampires known to the world, ending the masquerade and becoming public members of human society. “Coming out of the coffin,” as it were; the series contain fairly obvious civil rights metaphors, particularly gay rights.
Anyway, as one might imagine, this leads to a right nasty bunch of legal snarls. A lot of these we’ve already talked about in other contexts, which will be helpful, but some of the issues are new. This may well turn into a series of posts, and we may start doing analysis of episodes as they air, as we’re doing with Torchwood: Miracle Day.
This would be the obvious one. Immortality was one of the first things we discussed, but that was mostly in the context of being immortal while maintaining the masquerade, i.e. not letting anyone know that you’re immortal. So the vampire community would have needed to deal with those issues before the start of the series, but not anymore. Being immortal is not illegal as such. Indeed, making it illegal might well be unconstitutional. In Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962) the Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional to punish someone for being possessed of a certain biological condition, in this case addiction to narcotics. The Court reasoned that while using illegal narcotics might well be illegal, being addicted to them could not be, because that could be involuntary. Similarly, being made into a vampire is frequently an involuntary transaction (and apparently incurable), so punishing people for being vampires would seem to be problematic. Of course, there’s also the whole issue of whether or not vampires count as people, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
This particular implementation of immortality has some weird results. For example, Bill Compton winds up reacquiring the house his family had owned in the 1860s. It had been abandoned when he died, which is plausible given the setting in rural Louisiana, and when he reappeared to claim title, there wasn’t anyone to dispute his claim. We discussed what might have happened if there had been owners in the mean time back in December, and that analysis seems to work here.
II. Vampire Rights
A big question in the series has to do with the issue of vampire rights. By the time the show starts, it seems to be pretty much settled that vampires can own property, but the issue of humans marrying vampires has caused a fair amount of controversy. Truth be told, this seems to be a rather transparent and clumsy attempt to force the situation into an analogy for gay rights, because the issues actually are fairly different. First of all, the reason that people seem to be objecting to human/vampire marriage is that vampires are dead, and thus not really people. Of course, if that’s the case—and they are dead, to be sure—why can they own property? We talked about the issue of non-human intelligences starting here, and the real question here is not why vampires cannot marry, but why they can own property. If vampires are not people, or at best are ex-people, they shouldn’t have any rights at all. But if they are sufficiently human to own property, they should be sufficiently human to do anything else that a human can legally do. So there is indeed a line to be drawn here, but the place that it’s drawn doesn’t really make any sense. The issue doesn’t even really implicate gay marriage, as there are plenty of vampires who would just as soon enter into heterosexual relationships with humans and even with each other, so there’s no inherent change to the traditional definitions of marriage in view. At the beginning of season four we’re finally starting to see what looks like grassroots, community opposition to vampire-owned businesses, but that mostly seems to be based on the immorality or even amorality of vampire stereotypes (and let’s be honest, most of the vampires we’ve seen, even the nice ones, are distinctly unpleasant people) than on the fact that they’re dead and thus arguably not human.
In all fairness though, should vampires of this sort suddenly announce themselves to the world… it’s not implausible that the situation would wind up being just as irrational as the one in the stories. The marriage issue seems forced, but there would likely be a ton of conflicting and inconsistent attempts to challenge their right to become part of society premised on the fact that they’re not really human, or at least sufficiently different from baseline humans to justify treating them differently. But unless the courts pretty consistently sided against vampire rights, it would only seem to take a couple of decisions to establish that their rights are co-extensive with normal humans’.
IV. “Making,” Murder, and the Constitution
There’s one more sort of premise-level issue we’re going to look at before moving on. The question is whether turning someone into a vampire counts as murder. “Dying” is definitely part of the process: the vampire basically needs to drain them dry, have them drink the vampire’s blood, then spend the night with them underground, though exactly how this works hasn’t been shown on screen. And the result is a corpse. Vampires make no bones about the fact that they’re dead: they can’t eat, drink anything but blood, and none of their organs really seem to work. They are, for all intents and purposes, magically animated corpses. But still corpses.
So could a vampire who turns a human into a vampire be charged with murder? That’s going to depend on the means by which the victim was killed. Murder is the deliberate unlawful killing of another. If the vampire hunted the victim down, fed on him, killed him, and then turned him into a vampire, then definitely. But the crime of murder attaches with the deliberate killing, not the conversion. So if, for example, a vampire happened on a car accident, and plucked a person who would have otherwise been DOA from the wreckage and turned them into a vampire, that wouldn’t be murder. It might be assault, as if the person didn’t want to be turned into a vampire it would constitute an unwanted touching, but under the current state of the law, the conversion process alone does not seem to count as a crime in and of itself. Of course, there’s nothing to stop legislatures from passing statutes to make it illegal, and the stories seem to suggest that there would be significant public support for that kind of thing.
Then the question becomes whether that law would be constitutional. Assuming for the moment that vampires have rights like regular people, is it constitutional to pass a law which amounts to forbidding them to procreate? Such would almost certainly be unconstitutional if applied to humans as an impermissible burden on the right to privacy as currently formulated. But the vampires don’t really procreate. They take people that already exist and change them, often against the person’s will. At the very least, it would certainly be constitutional to forbid involuntary conversion. But it would arguably be a burden on the human in the transaction to forbid voluntary conversion. Of course, if vampires don’t have rights, then the whole thing is probably fair game.
Those are just some of the baseline legal issues in the premise of the series. We’ll take a look at some specific issues in later posts.