Batman: No Man’s Land, Part 4

In this post we continue our coverage of the No Man’s Land story arc.  The subject today is a twist on the trope of cannibalism in a dire situation.

In Shadow of the Bat #76, a group of wealthy birthday party attendees find themselves trapped in a mansion after the earthquake.  The food runs out, and the discussion turns to cannibalism.  Rather than wait for someone to die they decide to draw straws to pick the victim.  Long-time readers of the blog will remember that this is probably not a legally sound approach.

At first the guy with the short straw is resigned to his fate, but after downing most of a bottle of brandy he decides to “embrace life.”  In other words, he breaks the brandy bottle and threatens the rest of the group with the makeshift weapon.  The six other survivors confront him, first by trying to talk him into following the agreed-upon rules, but he threatens to kill another survivor instead of going quietly.  In the end, a man steps forward from the mob and gets his throat slashed for his trouble.  Finally, Batman arrives and the survivors are rescued.

The interesting thing about this situation is that arguably the would-be victim acted in self-defense because the mob was threatening to kill him.  Except for the rare (and still mostly illegal in the US) situation of physician-assisted suicide, one cannot consent to be killed.  See, e.g., People v. Jovanovic, 263 A.D.2d 182, 198 n. 5 (1999).  As a result, the man was arguably justified in using deadly force to repel the attack.  It’s true that the members of the mob were unarmed, but their superior numbers (and the explicit threat of deadly harm) probably justified the deadly force.

The problem for the man is that he threatened two other survivors both verbally and by pointing the broken bottle at them.  Generally an aggressor cannot claim self-defense, and if the case went to trial the main issue would likely be whether the man was the aggressor or not.  Evidence for it: the group didn’t approach him until after he broke the bottle and waved it at them; by participating in the lot drawing he was arguably threatening each other member of the group since they each had a chance of losing; and it could also be argued that he was expected to kill himself rather than be killed (the comic is not clear on how the victim was meant to die).  Evidence against it: the group had arguably made its intention to kill him clear from the moment he lost the draw.

In the end there’s probably not enough detail in the comic to say how the case would turn out, but it’s a nice twist on the typical desperation cannibalism trope.

11 responses to “Batman: No Man’s Land, Part 4

  1. Surely there is a difference between the case you talked about and this? Here they drew lots rather than ganging up on the weakest person, making it actually fair. The sailors in that case were found guilty and got six months, but I think (had the murder gone as planned) this would have been a real candidate for jury nullification…though I think Mr. Short Straw does deserve to be let off for self-defence, which is kind of awkward!

    • There’s not really a difference. Although the victim was chosen in a different way, the plan was still to kill him or her rather than wait for him or her to die naturally. A person who kills the weak and dying is still a murderer, even if the victims consented.

    • Fairness is not especially relevant. Everyone can have a fair chance of survival or it could be rigged so that one specific person would lose, it would still be murder.

  2. As far as murder by necessity not being a defense, how about this situation from the first Saw movie. The character has a device strapped to her neck that will kill her unless she retrieves the key from the stomach of a man lying on the floor. I think she’s told he’s dead, but we see him open his eyes before she cuts him open (IIRC, he had been given a drug that mostly paralyzed him). Where does she stand legally A) if she didn’t realize he was alive or B) she did?

  3. For a crime to have been committed, the act must be both a) of the sort prohibited by law (the actus reus) and b) must be accompanied by a particular mental state (the mens reus, or guilty mind). A mistake of fact which negates the mental state required for the crime can be a defense.

    Here, if the woman in fact believed the man to be dead, she could argue this mistake of fact prevented her from forming the intent to commit murder (malice aforethought.) Some jurisdictions require the mistake of fact to be ‘reasonable,’ while others do not. Even if she in fact believed the man to be dead, the woman may still be guilty of a lesser form of homicide (such as involuntary manslaughter) if she acted with reckless indifference to whether her cutting would cause the man’s death.

    If the woman did not believe the man was dead, she would probably be guilty of some form of homicide. If nothing else, felony murder (she intended to commit assault and battery on the man by cutting open his stomach, and he died as a result.)

    She may attempt to argue that she acted under duress; this defense is not likely to succeed. Generally, you cannot use duress as a defense in homicide cases.

  4. Not sure if this is a related question but i will ask anyway.

    First point – would it matter if this weak chappy who presumably tastes good has a lethal disease or perhaps needs some medication to survive that will not be forthcoming? I base this question on assisted suicide debates in the UK and the Swiss clinic Dignitas. To put it another way if someone is suicidal, has no realistic chances, will inevitably suffer and his death will benefit someone BUT is unable to complete the task himself can assistance be provided?

    Secondly what about taking a gamble? Can these be legal arrangements? Who is allowed to make a profit (selling tickets for example) Lets give three examples
    1) I join a game of russian roulette using an automatic hoping the gun will jam.
    2) I join a game of russian roulette but this one is more tradtitionally organised. round chamber one bullet etc.
    3) I join a no holds barred fighting club and get beaten to death.

    In which of those examples did i willingly (maybe i mean legally) join a sporting event taking a sensible risk of death as part of the desicion making process?

    • The physician-assisted suicide cases in the US make it pretty clear that the answer to your first question is “it’s still murder.”

      Since you can’t consent to your own death, the “no hold’s barred fighting club” example is still a crime. Specifically it’s probably manslaughter, since the defense of “mutual combat” may be invoked (at least in some jurisdictions) to reduce murder to manslaughter.

      Russian roulette is a bit trickier but likely still criminal. Many states criminalize soliciting, encouraging, or aiding suicide, for example, and that’s effectively what playing Russian roulette is. The same problem exists with the drawing straws method: it’s basically soliciting suicide.

      Legally speaking, the best method would probably have been for one of the people in the group to volunteer and make his or her wishes known in writing. Even waiting for someone to die would not necessarily work, since there could still be charges of abuse of a corpse.

  5. I love this post. Good analysis, good comic book source material. Although we should really look to state law as to how Gothamites are allowed to dispose of remains. In Indiana, there are very specific standards about what types of containers are allowed to contain human remains and where cremated human remains are allowed to be dispersed. Putting into writing that you would like your remains to be consumed as food probably wouldn’t conform to statutory requirements.

    • Assume New Jersey law for 1985-2011 depictions of Gotham City, then, per Shadow of the Bat Annual # 1. No idea what DC Editorial would prefer for Gotham’s host state post-Flashpoint, though…

  6. Part of his defense could hinge on the idea that the environment was inherently hostile. He agreed to the suicide pact because he was convinced that otherwise, they’d simply kill him as the dissenter. He threatened the others because he needed to establish to the mob that he was dead serious about staying alive. Of course, I have not read the comic in question, so I don’t know how much he could be argued to be acting in self defense (or how well he could make his defense even if he really was guilty).

  7. Pingback: Sleeper | Law and the Multiverse

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