The Law Is A Ass #318: Batman Flunks His Testimony
Contrary to popular belief, the Fifth Amendment is not the one that repealed Prohibition. And, contrary to popular belief, the Fifth Amendment is not what we’re talking about today. (Hey, I had a snappy opening joke to go with the Fifth Amendment but nothing for the Sixth Amendment. You wanted I should let it go to waste over a technicality?)
Last time, we were here together, I promised to explain why Batman would not be able to testify in a courtroom in DC’s New 52 continuity, even though he could in the old continuity. If you’ve been paying attention – and considering we’re only two paragraphs into this column, if you haven’t been paying attention you really should get your attention span checked – you can probably guess that said explanation involves the Sixth Amendment.
The Sixth Amendment is one of the two amendments in the Bill of Rights that deals with the rights of the accused in a criminal trial. It creates a list of rights which it grants to all defendants in criminal proceedings. For our purposes today we’re only going to deal with one of those Sixth Amendment rights; the defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him or her. Hey, there are eight of those rights in the Sixth and if we were going to talk about all eight, we’d be here all day. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plans for tonight.
The right of confrontation means more than that the defendant gets to sit in the courtroom and glower at the witnesses while they testify. It doesn’t, however, go as far as allowing the defendant to get up in the witness’s face or physically assault the witness, like they were on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. No, the right to confrontation lies somewhere in between; and I don’t mean Dr. Phil. What it means is that the defendant gets to cross-examine the witnesses who testify for the prosecution.
Cross-examination, which the noted legal scholar John Henry Wigmore called “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of the truth,” means the accused gets to ask the witnesses questions designed to attack the witness’s testimony and, if possible, cast doubts on the witness’s credibility. Among the ways in which a defendant may seek to attack a witness’s credibility is to show that the witness is a convicted criminal so not worthy of being believed. Another is to show that the witness has a bias in the case, such as the witness hates the defendant, or the witness wants to get the defendant out of the way so he could make the moves on the defendant’s girlfriend or the defendant knew the witness was secretly a bigamist, or any of the dozens of techniques we watched Perry Mason employ over and over again in nine seasons of the original series, half a season of the failed revival with Monte Markham, and 26 made-for-TV movies with the original Perry and Della back again. Basically, anything that would show the jury that the witness has a motive to lie about the defendant. Another technique, which can be employed on some occasions, is to show that the witness has a generally bad reputation for honesty, so is not a person whose statements or testimony should be believed. There are others, but these will suffice for our discussion today.
They suffice, because they all have something in common. In order for the defendant to be able to use any of those cross-examination tactics, the defendant has to know who the witness is. A defendant can’t very well establish a witness’s bias or past criminal record or reputation for honesty if the defendant does not know who the witness is.
Which brings us to Batman. We, the readers, may know that it’s Bruce Wayne under that cowl with the twin cell towers doubling as ear pieces, but the court doesn’t. And, more important, the defendant and his or her attorneys don’t. How does the defendant prove Batman has bias or a motive to lie about or a bad reputation for truth, if the defendant doesn’t know who the hell Batman is behind that mask? He doesn’t.
Which is why American courts are generally about as accepting of allowing masked witnesses to testify as Sheldon Cooper is of accepting change; either an alteration of his routine or pocket money from someone when he doesn’t know where those pockets may have been. No, as a general principle, masked witnesses cannot testify in American courts, because it would deny the defendant his right to confront the witness.
Now this is not a hard and fast rule. Some courts allow for some degree of witness anonymity in cases where the witness would face danger should the witness’s identity be revealed to the defendant; such as a detective who is in the middle of an undercover operation and can’t be outted or an eyewitness who fears retaliation. (I think the courts would be hard-pressed to rule that Batman was afraid of retaliation, considering putting himself in the path of retaliation is what he does on a daily basis.)
Courts also allow witness anonymity in cases of “forfeiture by wrongdoing” such as the defendant, or the defendant’s friends, threatening a witness and making the witness reluctant to testify. When this happens, courts rule that the defendant waived the right of confrontation by his or her wrongdoing. Again, I don’t think many courts would find that a defendant’s threats against Batman would hold much sway or cause him the slightest reluctance. If anything, they’d be more likely to encourage him.
In other cases, courts have allowed a witness to testify anonymously when the witness’s true identity was known to the prosecution and the prosecution supplied to the defendant the potential materials that the defense could use to impeach that witness. That could apply to, say, Captain America, because someone like Nick Fury could voucher for the man behind the mask, but it would not apply to the Batman, as no one knows who he is, not even the Gotham City Police or the District Attorney’s office. So no one could supply the defense with Batman’s impeaching information.
Without some constitutional amendment or federal law in the DC Universe which allowed for masked super heroes to testify in criminal proceedings, it is unlikely that Superman, Flash, Batman or any of the other DC heroes with secret identities could testify.
The old DC continuity actually had such a law that regulated the activities of masked super heroes. It was called the Keene Act. And according to our own John Ostrander, said act was modified by an amendment which, among other things, provided for how masked super heroes could testify; an amendment which, I immodestly note, John called “The Ingersoll Amendment.”
So under the old DC Universe continuity, Batman would have been able to testify. However no such legislation exists in the New 52 DC universe continuity. I know this because of Justice League# 30. In that story, Len (Captain Cold) Snart talks to Jake Shell “Parole Officer to the Rogues” and complains that even though Lex Luthor credited Captain Cold with helping to save the world from Forever Evil , the Flash won’t stand idly by and let Captain Cold walk free. Shell answers, “Unless the Flash unmasks and testifies under his real name, they’re not going to let him speak at your hearing.”
So it’s established that in the New 52, masked super heroes can’t testify at a parole hearing. Parole hearings are more informal proceedings and courts have held that the defendant’s panoply of trial rights – such as the right to confrontation – don’t apply as fully there as they do in an actual trial. So, if a masked super hero can’t testify under the relaxed procedures of a parole hearing in the New 52 world, a masked super hero will not be able to testify in a New 52 trial.
Or won’t until someone writes a story in which he or she really needs a masked super hero to testify, then that writer will figure out a way for it to happen. Then masked super heroes will be allowed to testify in the New 52 and I’ll probably get a new column out of it.
Writers of the New 52, the ball is in your courtroom.