Bob Ingersoll: THE LAW IS A ASS #340: THE ETERNAL LIGHTNESS OF BEING BATMAN
There are, among people of a particularly black-humored and waggish bent, jokes that you can’t have manslaughter without mans laughter. Well, I’m not laughing. Not only does manslaughter entail the unlawful killing of another human being – something which is not inherently humorous – but manslaughter is also how the long, arduous Bataan Death March that is Batman Eternal started. And there ain’t anything inherently humorous about that either.
Batman Eternal started with Commissioner Jim Gordon chasing fleeing felon Derek Grady into a subway station. The chase ended on the subway tracks, while two subway trains were approaching the station on the same track, from opposite directions. Grady was standing in front of a transformer box and Gordon saw a gun in his hand. So Gordon shot at Grady’s gun, intending the classic Lone Ranger disarm.
(If your only experience with the Lone Ranger is the Johnny Depp movie, I pity you. The real Lone Ranger was more competent than the oaf in that movie. He never took a life. He shot the guns out of the bad guys’ hands. He was that good. Oh yeah, and his horse couldn’t climb trees, either.)
We’ll never know whether Commissioner Gordon was as good a shot as the Lone Ranger. He didn’t shoot the gun out of Grady’s hand, because Grady didn’t actually have a gun. Gordon had been tricked into thinking he saw a gun. Gordon’s bullet passed through the nonexistent gun and hit the transformer box behind Grady. The box exploded. Then the switching mechanism for the tracks didn’t activate. Neither of the two trains switched to a new track. They collided head on causing one hundred sixty-two civilian deaths. Jim Gordon was arrested on one hundred sixty-two counts of manslaughter. One hundred sixty-two counts, one arrest. It would have been silly to arrest him one hundred sixty-two times. And a waste of fingerprint ink.
Like I said, not a laughing matter. Except, you know, I’m still going to make more jokes in this column, because, you know, it’s what I do and I’m, you know, a hypocrite. But I’m also a pretty good criminal defense attorney. And even though I haven’t practiced in years, I can still be a pretty good pretend attorney for fictional characters.
For example, I know it’s not enough that the state of New Jersey charged Jim with one hundred sixty-two counts of manslaughter. What’s important is that, like bubble gum on the underside of a desk, the charges have to stick. The one hundred sixty-two manslaughter charges against Jim? They’d stick worse than an unlicked postage stamp.
New Jersey Statute 2C:11-4 two kinds of manslaughter, aggravated manslaughter and simple manslaughter. (Okay, there’s also vehicular manslaughter, but Gordon was on foot, so fergedaboudit!) Further complicating matters – because people who write penal codes are never satisfied until they can complicate matters by creating multiple ways for every crime to be committed – each type of manslaughter has two variants. A person is guilty of aggravated manslaughter if he either causes a death under circumstances while manifesting extreme indifference to human life or causes a death while attempting to elude a law enforcement officer. A person commits simple manslaughter when he either recklessly causes the death of another or causes the death of another while in the heat of passion resulting from reasonable provocation. Fortunately for our purposes, just like vehicular manslaughter, two of those four manslaughters are off the table.
James Gordon didn’t cause anybody’s death while eluding the police. He was the police and Grady was eluding him. Only the eluder can commit manslaughter, not the eludee. (I’ve always wanted to make one of those inane “er”/“ee” comments, One more thing off my bucket list. Moving on to my next item. You wouldn’t happen to know where I can get a gallon of chipotle mayo and yak’s milk, would you?)
Gordon also didn’t cause anyone’s reasonable provocation. While a fleeing felon not surrendering his gun might constitute reasonable provocation, that’s not the case here. Gordon thought he saw a gun, but every witness, including Batman, said Grady didn’t have a gun. Even I, the omniscient narrator, tell you, Grady didn’t have a gun. (Why Gordon thought he saw a gun is a long story, but so is Batman Eternal. How Gordon was made to believe Grady had a gun was ultimately revealed in Batman Eternal # 19. As I’m writing about Batman Eternal # 1 and don’t want to write Spoiler Warning this week, I won’t go that story today.) What’s important is that Grady didn’t have a gun. No gun, no provocation. No provocation, no heat of passion. (No Heat of Passion, sounds like the worst Harlequin Romance ever!)
So what about causing a death with extreme indifference to life or causing death recklessly? Like your Christmas centerpiece in January, they’re still on the table.
Gordon said the transformer box behind Grady was shut down and shouldn’t have exploded. He also said the transformer box only controlled the station giving power to the station’s lights and turnstiles. It didn’t control the tracks or their switching boxes. Gordon shot at the gun he thought he saw even though it was right in front of the transformer, because he believed even if he hit the transformer by accident, that would not cause the two subway trains to collide.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume Gordon was correct. I say this because if Gordon was wrong, then he was guilty of manslaughter. End of story. End of column. And I still have a few jokes I’ve got to put somewhere.
I also say this because, let’s face it, Gordon was set up. Somebody tampered with the transformer and the tracks. Eventually, Gordon will be cleared and be commissioner again. We all know this, even if Batman Eternal hasn’t told us how he was set up or who did it yet.
Anyway, if Gordon was correct, then he wasn’t guilty of manslaughter. If shooting the transformer by accident wouldn’t have had any effect on the trains, then he didn’t show indifference to life. He honestly believed that if he accidentally shot the transformer, it wouldn’t affect anything.
As for reckless manslaughter, recklessness requires proving the conscious disregard of a substantial risk that a death would result from one’s actions. If shooting the transformer box wouldn’t do anything, then there wasn’t a substantial risk of death from his actions. Not even the Neil Hamilton Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV show, who set the standard for police incompetence, could disregard a risk that wasn’t even there.
Even if Gordon acted negligently in shooting the box, that can’t get him convicted of manslaughter. In the eyes of the law, a negligent act, or simple accident, does not rise to the level of a reckless act. In New Jersey, manslaughter has to be reckless not negligent.
The prosecutors might argue Gordon was wrong; the transformer wasn’t shut off and did control the switching mechanisms, so shooting toward it was reckless and showed indifference toward life. It should be pretty easy to prove whether Gordon was correct. Any competent electrician could look at the station’s wiring schematics and determine who was right. (Sure the police in Gotham City are incompetent, but there must be competent electricians in the city. Who do you think wires up all those death traps?)
Might Gordon may be guilty of some crime, say negligent homicide? Maybe. But he was charged with manslaughter and I wanted show that I don’t think the prosecution can make its manslaughter case against Gordon.
Still, even if you haven’t been reading Batman Eternal, you know the prosecutors will make their case against Gordon. Batman Eternal is, after all, a fifty-two issue limited series that’s running every week for an entire year. That’s 1,040 pages worth of story. 1,040 is even more pages than I need to fill out my own 1040 every April 15th. DC has to have something that stretches this story out for 1,040 pages. Having Gordon acquitted of all one hundred sixty-two counts of manslaughter would seem to be counter productive to the product.