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.
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.
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.
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.