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Friday, August 12, 2011

A Life of Crime, Unpunished


Comic books were a big part of my childhood, and Cyclops was always one of my favourites. He had the ability to shoot crimson beams out of his eyes. They weren’t lasers; they sort of packed a heavy kinetic punch, like ramming a semi into whatever they hit. Pretty cool. Cyclops was just one of a gang of superpowered dudes and dudettes, so everyone accepted his abilities, and no one was blown away by flying, mind-reading, changing shape, or teleporting.
But in our world, no one can do any of that stuff. (Or so scientists would have us believe.) So just what could a superhero get away with if they were the only one?
Take my old pal Cyclops, or someone with similar abilities. Assume a person walks into a bank. They open their eyes and blow the bank vault door a hundred metres through the wall, then help themselves to all the money they could carry. The whole process would take about thirty seconds, so he’d be long gone before the police could arrive, and I don’t know about your bank, but I don’t think the local security is really up to dealing with “Eyebeam Guy.” There are a dozen witnesses. Even the cameras have detailed footage.
Eyebeam Guy will almost certainly get arrested. Let’s assume he’s clever enough to realize that being caught with a bag emblazoned with a giant dollar sign (do banks still use those?) will be a dead giveaway so he’s stashed his loot somewhere safe. In a hole he’s dug in the woods, let’s say. Somewhere the police won’t find it.
So they drag Eyebeam Guy in to jail and his arraignment. Let’s say the judge decides there is enough evidence to go to trial. We’ve got witnesses, video, it’s an open and shut case.
Then they go to trial. Ah, here’s where Eyebeam Guy will shine. His lawyer will point out that a jury of his peers (in this case other normal people, since there aren’t any other superheroes about) must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Eyebeam Guy committed the crime of which he’s accused. Reasonable doubt. That phrase is going to let Eyebeam Guy go free.
You can’t force him to shoot something with his power so that the jury can see the mess he can make of an innocent Buick. So what is the case left with? “This guy came into the bank, blew the vault up with his eyebeams, then stole money.” They’re going to get stuck on the “eyebeam” part. The rest might be entirely plausible, but the eyebeams are a pivotal part of the case.
If you were on that jury, would you convict? Eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable and videotape can be faked - and wouldn’t you assume it had been if you saw the prosecution play something as ridiculous as a fellow blasting his way through steel with red lights from his eyeballs? Isn’t is “reasonably doubtful” that someone could rob a bank that way?
So Eyebeam Guy gets set free. He can now retrieve his ill-gotten gains and cackle his way to a life of wealth and leisure.
The real question I have is: How many times can our fictional villain get away with committing a crime before Joe Average jurist finally believes? It would be an interesting experiment, and I fully encourage any hidden Eyebeam Guy out there to start it up. Please email me the results. Just don’t come to my house.

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