All the Things Wrong With Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s Courtroom Scene
We all have jobs. Does it ever bother you when a piece of entertainment gets everything so completely wrong about your job? I’m a reporter for a small daily newspaper in Upstate New York, and I usually don’t have a problem with how reporters are portrayed on TV, in movies or in comics. But I cover cops and courts, everything from arrests to court appearances to trials, and as a result, I can’t stand watching courtroom scenes in any media. Nobody ever gets them right. It’s like nails on a chalkboard how writers warp the reality of the criminal justice system to fit their narrative.
This week’s new issue of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is about as massive a miscarriage of justice in regards to a courtroom scene as I have ever witnessed.
Pun always intended.
In Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #34, Squirrel Girl and her friends are placed on trial for trying to stop the cops from arresting super-villain Kraven the Hunter. And writer Ryan North gets pretty much everything wrong about how a courtroom actually works. This breaks the immersion of the story, hence the nails on the chalkboard feeling.
Now, you might say, “But Sean, it’s just a silly comedy comic, what does it even matter?” To that I would say a couple of things. 1.) Unbeatable Squirrel Girl might be a comedy, but it’s not some whacky, Looney Tunes-style romp where nothing matters. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has always operated on a foundation of realism. Just look at how stringent North is about the reality of computer coding and programming. This comic could serve as a college text book on the subject. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to then hold him to the realities of the criminal justice system, a system that operates on rules, much like computer programming.
2.) This is just my rinky dink blog, which has no oversight other than myself, and which North probably won’t see, so I can write whatever I want. The entire point of this place is to get stuff off my chest. And 3.) It’s not like I’m disparaging this comic or its creative team. It’s still a fun issue and one of the best comics on the stands. It’s just this courtroom stuff that really, really, really bugs the hell out of me.
So join me after the jump for how badly Ryan North messes up the criminal justice system! It’s me at my most nitpickiest!
To set the scene, an ongoing subplot in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has been the redemption of Kraven the Hunter, a classic Spider-Man villain. Squirrel Girl is a rather unique superhero in that she tries to solve problems by talking to villains instead of just punching. As such, she has been trying to rehabilitate Kraven through friendship, and recently invited him to hang out socially with her and her friends. It was a fun time.
But at the end of the social gathering, the cops showed up and attempted to arrest Kraven for all of his various open warrants and misdeeds. This is totally what cops are supposed to do. But Squirrel Girl gets involved to stop the cops from arresting her friend, and as such, Squirrel Girl, Kraven and all of their friends are arrested for interfering with the arrest.
Squirrel Girl doesn’t actually lay a hand on any of the cops, but she does stop their attempts to arrest Kraven, so that’s a charge of obstruction of a governmental administration, a misdemeanor. The specific laws vary from state to state, but since Squirrel Girl takes place in New York City, and since I cover criminal stuff in New York State, I have extensive firsthand knowledge of how the criminal justice system works in New York State.
Also, her various friends don’t get involved at all, yet they’re still arrested as accomplices for some reason. So all of them are arrested, they spend the night in jail, and then they head to court the next morning.
Which is where we pick up with everything Ryan North gets wrong in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #34…
1. You don’t immediately go to trial on the first day
This is the big one. Contrary to law and order TV shows that wrap up cases within an hour, you don’t actually go to a jury trial immediately after being arrested. In fact, it could take up to a year, if not longer, before your case goes to a jury trial. The criminal justice system is a long, drawn out process. There are rules in place to ensure a speedy trial, so that attorneys don’t draw the thing out forever. But it’s not so speedy that you’re on trial immediately.
You do appear before a judge right away. Your first court appearance is called an “arraignment”, and it has to occur within a couple days following your arrest. At an arraignment, both attorneys are handed the case, an automatic plea of “not guilty” is entered and then the case is adjourned. The “not guilty” plea is automatic because the case is brand new, and everyone involved, especially both attorneys, need time to wrap their heads around what they’re dealing with.
That’s why you don’t go to trial immediately. There is a lot of stuff that needs to be taken care of before a trial. All of the evidence needs to be gathered, analyzed and shared between both sides. Witnesses need to be established. And the defense gets to file all manner of motions to iron out any problems they have with the case ahead of trial. This takes weeks and months of work. Especially when you remember that the judge and the attorneys are also dealing with any number of other cases. You’re likely not the only person arrested within the past day. That alone would make it impossible to have a jury trial immediately for every single case every single day.
Likewise, courts don’t just pick a jury for the day and let them hear every case. That’s not how it works either. A specific jury is selected for each specific trial, so that the attorneys can weed out anyone who might be biased to that specific case.
So no, Squirrel Girl and her friends would not immediately go to a jury trial in their first court appearance, the day after they were arrested.
2. One lawyer does not represent every defendant
As expected whenever a Marvel superhero goes to court, Squirrel Girl is represented by Jennifer Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk. I assume when a writer does a court story, they flip a coin to see if they’ll choose She-Hulk or Daredevil as the defense attorney. Squirrel Girl went with She-Hulk, which is fine.
What’s not fine is that She-Hulk is chosen to represent all of the defendants in this case, which includes Squirrel Girl, Kraven, Brain Drain, Koi Boi, Chipmunk Hunk, Nancy Whitehead and Chipmunk Hunk’s girlfriend, whose name I never remember and apparently can’t be Googled. That’s not how it works. In a case with multiple defendants, each defendant gets their own attorney to look out for their own specific interests. The degree to which Squirrel Girl was involved in fighting the cops is different to the degree to which Nancy was involved in fighting the cops, and neither of them have anything to do with Kraven’s past crimes, for which he is also on trial.
In a criminal trial, each defendant gets their own attorney, and they aren’t necessarily required to work together. In fact, any defense attorney worth their salt would probably immediately file to have Kraven’s case separated from the others, considering Kraven is also answering for all those old crimes. Those have nothing to do with bothering the cops, for which Squirrel Girl and her friends are charged. Likewise, considering only Kraven and Squirrel Girl got involved with the cops at all, while everyone else just stood back and watched, a good lawyer would argue against these guys and gals being arrested as accomplices at all.
(It’s Mary, her name is Mary.)
3. The prosecutor is a district attorney
This might not be a mistake, technically speaking, because North doesn’t specifically come out and say that attorney Courtney Alaska isn’t an assistant district attorney. As you can see in the panel I posted earlier, she just offers her name as being for the prosecution. But it definitely feels like he just has some ordinary attorney serve as the prosecution, because “assistant district attorney” is an important title that shouldn’t go unmentioned.
In a criminal case, the victim is not represented by an attorney. Instead, the prosecution represents the state. In fact, ‘district attorney’ is an elected position in New York, who then hires assistant district attorneys to actually go out and prosecute criminal cases. So while North doesn’t specifically say Alaska isn’t an assistant district attorney, that’s not usually a title that is ever omitted in a criminal proceeding.
4. You don’t call a witness in the middle of your opening statement
When the trial starts, Alaska, the prosecutor, gives her opening statement to the jury and its largely fine. North gets that part right, that a trial starts with opening statements from both sides. What he gets wrong is that you don’t call your first witness in the middle of your opening statement.
Trials have a specific structure. Both sides get an opening statement, which does not count as evidence, and then the witnesses are called. The defense attorney doesn’t just stop in the middle of their opening statement to call a witness to bolster their opening statement or present their case in any way.
As for Alaska’s objection, that’s largely OK. Attorneys do sometimes object during opening or closing statements, but those objections rarely go anywhere, because opening statements are not evidence in the case. She-Hulk can refer to Squirrel Girl as a superhero in her opening statement if she wants. It’s then through witness testimony, the actual evidence in a case, that she’ll have to properly establish Squirrel Girl as a superhero.
Now, obviously, witnesses don’t have to be properly established as superheroes in the real world, and I don’t know exactly what the law requires about superheroes in the Marvel Universe. But expert witnesses do need to be properly established in a court of law. If you’re going to call a doctor to the stand to discuss doctor things, you need to properly establish the doctor’s educational background and credentials, and then the judge will recognize the doctor as an expert. I think the same thing is required of police officers. So the need to establish Squirrel Girl as a superhero before treating her as such in a court of law does have some basis in reality.
6. The defense does not call witnesses first
Simply put, the prosecution goes first when it comes to calling witnesses. Defense attorney She-Hulk is not going to call the first witness in a trial. In fact, the defense doesn’t have to call any witnesses at all if it wants. In the American criminal justice system, each defendant is innocent until proven guilty. This means that the prosecution has to present evidence to prove that they are guilty. The burden of proof is on them. The defense is then welcome to call their own witnesses to poke holes in that proof or provide an alibi, but that is not a requirement in any way.
It should also be noted that you don’t just call witnesses at random. In the picture I posted earlier, Squirrel Girl looked pretty surprised to be called first by She-Hulk. That’s now how it works either. It is Squirrel Girl’s decision, as discussed with her attorney, whether or not she’ll take the stand at all. There’s a strategy to a court case and the defense attorney and defendant work together on that strategy. The attorney doesn’t just surprise their client by throwing them on the stand without warning.
Not even the prosecutor has the power to just randomly call whomever they want at random. This stuff is figured out well in advance. They can file subpeonas to force you to testify if you don’t want to, but that only works for witnesses. The prosecution cannot force the defendant to take the stand.
7. The case is about the specific crime, not about the moral character of the defendants
Squirrel Girl and her friends are charged with obstructing the cops, and Kraven also has all those past crimes to answer for. Like I said before, Kraven’s cases would likely be broken off into another trial altogether, but it’s perfectly reasonable to try everybody together at the same time for the scuffle with the cops. Granted, it’s highly unlikely that they’d hold a trial for seven defendants simultaneously, but let’s let that slide for now. The important thing is that the trial is going to be about obstructing the cops in their arrest attempt. That’s what everybody is charged with. That’s what the attorneys, the judge and the jury are going to focus on.
Instead, between the opening arguments and the questioning of Squirrel Girl, they only focus on the moral characters of Kraven and Squirrel Girl, and all of her friends.
Neither She-Hulk nor Alaska ask Squirrel Girl a single question about the attack on the cops. She-Hulk simply goes on and on about how Squirrel Girl thinks Kraven is redeemable before ending all of her questioning. And then Alaska uses her cross-examination to bring to light a couple of times Squirrel Girl (or her evil clone) committed some minor offenses, in an effort to besmirch Squirrel Girl’s character.
That’s not what a trial is for.
Yes, both attorneys can call into question a witness’ moral character. But this is a matter of credibility, and whether or not the jury is willing to take this person’s testimony seriously. The entire case of whether or not Squirrel Girl and her friends interfered with those cops does not hinge on whether or not Kraven and/or Squirrel Girl are upstanding citizens.
And yet, She-Hulk doesn’t ask any questions beyond that.
This is She-Hulk’s one and only chance to have Squirrel Girl on the stand to explain what happened about the attack on the cops. She could make arrangements with the judge to save Squirrel Girl for a possible callback later in the trial, but that never happens. She-Hulk calls the defendant herself to the stand and never asks the defendant about the actual crime for which she is on trial, neither does the prosecutor.
8. The jury doesn’t provide their opinion on sentencing
The comic then jumps past the rest of the trial following Squirrel Girl’s testimony, so we don’t know if she was ever called back to the stand to discuss the actual incident or who else was called to testify. Instead, the comic jumps right to the verdict, in which the jury finds Squirrel Girl and her friends not guilty of any crimes, but then finds Kraven guilty of all of his crimes. That part is fine.
What’s not fine is that little line from the judge about the jury thinking Kraven should spend the rest of his life behind bars. The jury doesn’t have any say when it comes to sentencing. The jury’s job is to listen to the facts as presented by the attorneys, and then decide whether or not the defendant committed the accused crime. They’re specifically instructed not to consider sentencing when making their determination.
Sentencing is the judge’s job, and it’s decided at a later date.
And that is my very nitpicky takedown of this week’s courtroom scene in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I’m not a lawyer, so I may have missed some things, and I may even have gotten some things wrong for all I really know, but I think this was an otherwise solid attempt to educate everybody on how the criminal justice system actually works.
Simply put, it doesn’t work like that.