Monthly Archives: May 2013

Potter’s Field

Potter’s Field is the 2011 crime noir comic written by the estimable Mark Waid (previously interviewed here!) with art by Paul Azaceta. It stars an anonymous investigator, who uses the apt moniker “John Doe”, who has taken on a mission: identifying the bodies buried in New York City’s Hart Island. The island is the eastern-most part of the Bronx and has been used as, well, a potter’s field, i.e., a burial ground for the indigent and/or unidentified, since the mid-nineteenth century. As with all stories in the crime genre, it brings a number of interesting legal issues to the fore, and we’ll be looking at both the idea of the potter’s field and a rather unusual species of identity theft. Spoilers within. Continue reading

Guest Post: The End of The Dark Knight Rises

Today we have a guest post from Mike Lee, who wrote an analysis of an issue from the end of The Dark Knight Rises.  Just describing the issue is a pretty big spoiler, so I’ll save the description for after the jump.

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The Courtroom Antics of Golden Age Green Lantern

Today’s post comes from an email from an anonymous reader, who pointed us to this fantastic bit of Golden Age Green Lantern weirdness.  The blogger over at What Were They Thinking?! wonders if the Green Lantern’s antics wouldn’t be grounds for a mistrial, and our reader had a few questions of their own:

1: Would the witness’s confession be admissible in a court of law, considering it was compelled under threat? Basically, would the events of the last panel have happened the same in a court in today’s time?

2: Could the defendant’s threat to the witness be used against him in this trial (assuming it wasn’t declared a mistrial) or in a subsequent trial?

(Just in case the link goes dead, I’ll summarize the events of the comic.  The Green Lantern, as his secret identity Alan Scott, is observing the trial of the alleged leader of a slavery ring.  The prosecution’s main witness, one of the henchmen, proves uncooperative on the stand, so Scott changes into his Lantern outfit and returns to the courtroom, where he threatens to kill the henchman if he doesn’t tell the truth.  The henchman then points the finger at the defendant, who gives the henchman a death threat of his own.  This apparently leads to a guilty verdict for the defendant and the day is saved.)

I’m not going to try to figure out exactly what the relevant law was like in the 1940s.  And like many DC heroes, Alan Scott didn’t operate in a well-defined location anyway (originally “Capitol City“).  Instead I’ll approach this from the perspective of modern law and use our favorite generic big city stand-in, New York.

I. Mistrials

In New York, a mistrial can be declared at the discretion of the trial judge, either at the judge’s own direction or on a motion by one of the parties.  However, the judge must declare a mistrial on a motion by the defendant if at any time during the trial there occurs “conduct inside … the courtroom, which is prejudicial to the defendant and deprives him of a fair trial.” N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 280.10(1).  A disturbance in the courtroom (such as an outburst from a member of the public) will not ordinarily result in a mistrial unless it leads to such prejudice.

So what would be prejudicial against the defendant?  Well, having a witness give inadmissible, coerced testimony might be one such thing, especially since the prosecution’s case evidently hinged on that testimony.  It would be pretty hard to ask the jury to ignore what the witness said, especially after the defendant’s own threatening response.  What’s worse, the judge didn’t even try to exclude the improper testimony or have the Green Lantern removed from the court room. So a mistrial would seem to be appropriate, either from the trial judge or on appeal.

It’s true that mistrials are rarely granted in the real world, but this is a really egregious case, far beyond the typical case of a witness making a minor remark, such as accidentally referring to a defendant’s parole status.

II. Admissibility

As indicated above, I don’t think that the witness’s statement would be admissible.  There does not seem to be a specific rule in New York excluding coerced testimony or testimony given under duress, but New York does have its own common law version of FRE 403. People v Scarola, 71 N.Y.2d 769 (1988).  That is, evidence that is more prejudicial than it is relevant should be excluded.  I don’t know if there are any analogous cases to this one, but it seems pretty clear cut.

The admissibility of the defendant’s response, however, is another matter.  Strictly speaking, such a statement would ordinarily be admissible.  It wouldn’t run afoul of the hearsay rules (i.e. most of the people in the courtroom could testify as to what the defendant said in a future trial).  But the trouble is that explaining why the defendant said that would require explaining the whole Green Lantern outburst, which is really just a backdoor way of introducing the inadmissible witness testimony.  I suspect the defendant’s response would stay out as well.

III. Conclusion

The whole thing is shenanigans piled on top of shenanigans.  How on Earth the Green Lantern thought death threats in open court were a good idea, I don’t know.  Given its position on the last page of the comic, I suspect the writer found themselves painted into a corner and came up with a solution that is remarkable only for its inelegance.  But it’s a good example of how a superhero could actually end up preventing real justice from being done.

Iron Man 3: The Crimes of The Mandarin

This post was inspired by an email question from Wayne and a comment from Martin, both of whom asked what crimes The Mandarin could be charged with.  Beware: the answer requires massive spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go see it.

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2013 Metropolitan Washington Mensa Regional Gathering

Last Saturday, May 18, I gave the keynote address at the 2013 Metropolitan Washington Mensa’s Regional Gathering. The address was entitled “This Is Not the Worst Thing You’ve Caught Me Doing: Iron Man, Comics, and the Law” and focused on the legal issues related to the Iron Man character, particularly as presented in the recent movies. Topics included weapons regulation, ITAR, the FAA and air traffic control and whether Stark might be liable for a DUI or related offense for using the Iron Man armor whilst drunk.

Pictures of the keynote inside! Continue reading

Iron Man 3: Iron Patriot Goes to Pakistan

We’re just about done with Iron Man 3, which we still recommend seeing if you haven’t already.  Here’s an essentially spoiler-free version of the facts behind this post: at some point in the movie, Iron Patriot (the re-branded War Machine) goes to Pakistan to look for The Mandarin.  But wait a minute.  Iron Patriot is very much an official, publicly acknowledged part of the US military.  So how can he—armed to the teeth, mind you—conduct a potentially violent manhunt in a foreign country?

Obviously this is strongly reminiscent of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May of 2011, and this post is based on some expert analysis of the law surrounding his killing.  A few more spoilery details inside (about the movie, not bin Laden; don’t get excited).

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Iron Man 3: Surgery and Homicide

In this, our third post on Iron Man 3, we consider the question of whether Dr. Aldrich Killian could theoretically be criminally liable for the deaths of people injected with Extremis, or certain deaths caused by Extremis patients. The idea here is fairly straightforward. Deliberately doing something that one knows has a reasonable likelihood of killing someone else which actually does result in their deaths definitely constitutes some species of homicide offense in most jurisdictions. But surgeons do precisely that all the time, engaging in acts which, given only minute alterations, can be either life-saving or horrific. Every time someone goes under the knife, there is an at least minor chance that they will die on the operating table, and more serious conditions justify undergoing riskier procedures. Extremis has been shown to possess incredible restorative properties, including the regeneration of lost limbs, but it does carry with it certain risks. As such, which homicide offense, if any, would be the most appropriate to charge Killian with, and would he have any defenses?

Spoilers within, so be forewarned. Continue reading

Iron Man 3: Property Law and Medical Experimentation

We started talking about Iron Man 3 on Monday with some questions sent to us by a lucky reader who caught a sneak preview. Now we’ll take a look at two more issues: property law and medical experimentation.

Without giving too much away, we can say that at one point in the movie, Stark gives out his home address on live TV. Shortly thereafter, the press and bad guys show up and things start to get a bit hairy. The movie seems to assume that this would not have happened if Stark hadn’t given out his address. That strikes us as. . . dodgy. Further, the movie takes some inspiration from the Iron Man: Extremis storyline, and though the details of Extremis seem to vary quite a bit from the source material, both involve experimental medical injections. So we’ll talk about those issues as well. Continue reading

Iron Man 3 Questions

We’re going to start our coverage of Iron Man 3 with some questions we received almost two weeks ago from Heiki, who saw the movie at a local premiere in Europe.  We had to wait to see it this weekend, but it was well worth it.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.  It’s a great movie.  There are some fairly serious spoilers below, though.

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Batman and the Unavailable Declarant

Today we have a post based on a question from David, who asks:

I just watched Batman: Year One on Netflix, and there was an interesting issue presented that I thought I’d share. Toward the end of the movie, the corrupt Detective Flass is under indictment for involvement in a big drug scheme. Commissioner Gordon (through Batman’s intimidation) gets one of the crooks involved in the scheme, Jefferson Skeevers, to agree to testify against Flass.

Upon hearing this, Flass tells Gordon something along the lines of “he won’t testify if I have something to say about it…” The scene cuts to Skeevers unconscious in a hospital bed. Assuming Skeevers has confessed in a police statement out of court, wouldn’t this still be admissible against Flass under the forfeiture exception to hearsay as long as the prosecutor can show Flass had something to do with Skeevers hospitalization?

The Batman: Year One movie David mentions is a faithful adaptation of the classic Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, several elements of which were integrated into the Christopher Nolan Batman films.  The book or animated version are well worth checking out.  We even gave away five copies of the book to celebrate our own year one.

Anyway, back to David’s question.  Before we worry about whether any hearsay exceptions or exemptions apply we have to decide whether Skeevers’s statement would be hearsay in the first place.  We don’t know what rules of evidence apply in a local criminal case in Gotham, but we’ll use the Federal Rules of Evidence, since many state rules are based on or are very similar to the FRE.

I. Is It Hearsay?

Under FRE 801, hearsay is an out of court statement (i.e. an oral, written, or nonverbal assertion) offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement.  In this case, we’re supposing that Skeevers made an oral or written assertion that Flass was involved in the scheme, Skeevers did so out of court, and the prosecution would offer Skeevers’s statement in order to prove that Flass was, in fact, involved in the Scheme (i.e. as proof that what Skeevers said was actually true).  It doesn’t matter whether the prosecution did this by offering a recording, a signed statement, or the testimony of a police officer who interviewed Skeevers.  All of that would be hearsay.

You might think about the exemption for statements “made by the party’s coconspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy”, but although Skeevers and Flass may have been coconspirators at one time, these statements were not made during or in furtherance of the conspiracy.  Indeed, they were probably made as part of some kind of plea bargain or immunity deal.  Without any applicable exemptions, the statements are indeed hearsay, which is ordinarily inadmissible.

Normally this could be overcome by having Skeevers simply testify in person, which would give the jury a better opportunity to judge the truthfulness of his statements, and it would give the defense an opportunity to cross-examine him.  But Skeevers is lying unconscious in the hospital, apparently because Flass or someone acting at his behest put him there.  So now what?

Now we turn to the hearsay exceptions, of which there are several.  Some of them apply whether the declarant is unavailable or not and some of them only apply if the declarant is unavailable.  That said, it appears that only the latter will apply in this case.

II. FRE 803 and Recorded Recollections

You might think that if Skeevers had made a written statement for the police that his statement could be introduced as evidence under the recorded recollection exception of FRE 803(5).  After all, FRE 803 states that “The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay, regardless of whether the declarant is available as a witness” (emphasis added).  And such a written statement would seem to fit the bill for 803(5):

A record that:
(A) is on a matter the witness once knew about but now cannot recall well enough to testify fully and accurately;
(B) was made or adopted by the witness when the matter was fresh in the witness’s memory; and
(C) accurately reflects the witness’s knowledge.

Skeevers clearly once knew about Flass’s involvement but also clearly cannot now recall it well enough to testify fully and accurately: he is unconscious.  The statement was made when the matter was fresh in his memory, before the incident that caused his injuries.  And we’ll assume that it is an accurate statement.

But despite the phrase “regardless of whether the declarant is available as a witness“, the courts have been uniform in holding that 803(5) only applies when there is a witness available to testify that they can’t recall the matter reflected in the record.  See, e.g., Steinberg v. Obstetrics-Gynecological & Infertility Group, P.C., 260 F.Supp.2d 492 (D.Conn. 2003) (the argument that 803(5) applies to an unavailable declarant “borders on frivolous”); Jacobson v. Deutsche Bank, A.G., 206 F.Supp.2d 590 (S.D.N.Y. 2002).

None of the other 803 exceptions are likely to apply in this case, so let’s move on to the heart of the matter: exceptions that apply only when the declarant is unavailable.

III. FRE 804 and the Unavailable Declarant

Declarants can be unavailable for a lot of reasons, one of which is when they “cannot be present or testify at the trial or hearing because of death or a then-existing infirmity, physical illness, or mental illness”.  FRE 804(a)(4).  That definitely describes Skeevers.

Once a declarant is unavailable, there are some special exceptions that can apply to statement they made before they became unavailable.  Two might apply in this case.  David alluded to one of them (804(b)(6)) in the question:

The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay if the declarant is unavailable as a witness: … A statement offered against a party that wrongfully caused — or acquiesced in wrongfully causing — the declarant’s unavailability as a witness, and did so intending that result.

If the prosecution can prove that Flass caused (and that includes indirectly causing via an agent or conspirator) Skeevers’s injuries, then it’s pretty much a slam dunk to introduce Skeevers’s statements against Flass.  After all, we already have Flass indicating his intent: “he won’t testify if I have something to say about it…”

Another possibility is 804(b)(3), statements against interest:

A statement that:

(A) a reasonable person in the declarant’s position would have made only if the person believed it to be true because, when made, it … had so great a tendency … to expose the declarant to civil or criminal liability

This exception might apply if Skeevers made the statement before he struck an immunity deal.  If he spilled the beans about his role in a criminal conspiracy in which Flass also played a part, confessing to multiple crimes in the process, then that would definitely be a statement against interest.  But if he signed an immunity deal first and then talked, then his statements wouldn’t actually be exposing him to criminal liability and so the exception wouldn’t apply.  If this did apply, however, it could be a useful backup in case the prosecution couldn’t prove Flass’s involvement in Skeevers’s unavailability.

IV. Conclusion

Apart from the issue of proof, this is a classic example of 804(b)(6), which is a rule that meshes very well with most people’s intuition about fairness—and gives criminals a disincentive to intimidate or kill witnesses.