Supervillain Sentencing and the Eighth Amendment

A couple weeks ago, I cited some material from the book The Law of Superheroes by lawyers James Daily and Ryan Davidson. This week, I have reproduced another section on a subject I’ve been thinking a bit about lately, especially the part about supervillain prisons.

On the “Supergirl” TV show, the DEO keeps various alien criminals — escapees from the crashed Kryptonian prison — that they have recaptured. As a government agency, presumably they have some legal basis for this. But, the heroes on “The Flash” have no governmental authority (as far as I can tell), yet they imprison captured supervillains — and keep them in very small cells. On “Arrow”, Oliver Queen doesn’t take many prisoners, but he has been known to keep one or two (e.g., Deathstroke) in a secret, underground cell on the island of Lian Yu. (Though, that may have been in association with A.R.G.U.S.) It makes me wonder if any of the villains/criminals’ right have been violated. (Not that I have much sympathy for them.)

What if the state attempted to imprison an immortal supervillain for life? Or tried to execute a nigh-invulnerable supervillain? And what about special supervillain prisons? Finally, could a supervillain’s powers be forcibly removed? Besides the practical problems involved with imprisoning an immortal, all-powerful villain like, say, Galactus, there are also constitutional issues to consider. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the examples above, how would the courts rule?

Immortal Supervillains and Life Imprisonment

Life imprisonment appears to have emerged in the nineteenth century as an alternative to the death penalty. The Supreme Court formally recognized it as constitutional in 1974.*1* For most people, a sentence of life without parole is really just a sentence of a few decades. The issue is not limited simply to life without parole, either; courts can and do hand down consecutive life sentences. A defendant convicted of multiple serious crimes that do not reach the level in which life without parole is permitted may still be sentenced to enough prison time to guarantee that he’ll never be released, e.g., six twenty-year terms to be served consecutively. He’d have to come up for and be paroled for each one in turn, which amounts to a life sentence.

But what about an immortal (or at least very long-lived) supervillain like Apocalypse? Even a very young man who gets life without parole will rarely see more than five decades in prison. Which is bad, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish from seeing fifty decades or five hundred decades. Is this cruel and unusual punishment?

It may very well be, especially given the ongoing debate about the practice of incarceration in general. There have been cases in which judges have ordered the release of large numbers of convicts due to prison conditions, especially overcrowding.*2* But that aside, it seems plausible that the Supreme Court might well rule that imprisoning someone for centuries, in addition to being completely impractical and phenomenally expensive, is crueler than simply killing him or her. Thus, if capital punishment is unavailable as an alternative to an eternity in prison, whether because no capital crime was committed or because the jurisdiction does not allow capital punishment, then a very long but finite sentence — or at least the possibility of parole — may be constitutionally required.

Nigh-Invulnerable Characters and the Death Penalty

While many superpowered characters are tough, most can be killed through conventional means when it comes right down to it. However, others may either be unkillable (e.g., Doomsday, Dr. Manhattan) or extremely difficult to kill (e.g., Wolverine). In the case of a character with a healing factor like Wolverine’s, none of the most common modern methods of execution would work: shooting, hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, or the gas chamber. Decapitation might work (Xavier Protocol Code 0-2-1 mentions this as a possibility for Wolverine), but no one’s tried it.

This uncertainty is problematic, because while the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty and has never specifically invalidated a method of punishment on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual,*3* it has stated “[p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death.”*4* Decapitation has been specifically cited as a form of execution that is likely unconstitutional for being too painful.*5* Another hypothetical example is “a series of abortive attempts at electrocution,” which would present an “objectively intolerable risk of harm.”*6* Since we don’t know if a given method of execution would actually work for a regenerating or nigh-invulnerable supervillain, trial and error would be the only way to determine an effective method. Since regenerating characters are often unaffected by drugs, it may not be possible to mitigate pain. It seems likely, then, that the courts would rule that trying to carry out the death penalty would be unconstitutional for those who are unkillable or almost unkillable.

Interior shot of Negative Zone prison

Supervillain Prisons

Many supervillains could easily break out of a normal prison, so many comic books have developed special methods of incarceration to handle people who can fly or walk through walls. One example is the Marvel Universe’s Negative Zone, which housed a prison during the Marvel Civil War. Although conditions at the Negative Zone prison were similar to a normal prison, the Zone itself seemed to negatively affect some people’s emotions and mental health. Is it cruel and unusual to imprison people in such a place?

In short, probably not. Even regular prisons are seriously depressing, so it’s already going to be difficult to prove that a prison in the Negative Zone is worse enough to be considered cruel or unusual punishment. As the Supreme Court has said:

“The unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain… constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. We have said that among unnecessary and wanton inflictions of pain are those that are totally without penological justification. In making this determination in the context of prison conditions, we must ascertain whether the officials involved acted with deliberate indifference to the inmates’ health or safety.”*7*

Furthermore, to be “sufficiently serious” to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, “a prison official’s act or omission must result in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”*8* Minimal is the right word; prison officials “must provide humane conditions of confinement; prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.”*9* This is a very low bar.

The emotional effects of the Negative Zone are not really part of the punishment but rather a side effect of the place. Because the Negative Zone is the only suitable prison for many supervillains, the side effect is arguably necessary. Further, the side effects are not controlled or intentionally inflicted by anyone. Thus, the effects are not inflicted wantonly (i.e., deliberately and unprovoked). Offering the inmates adequate living conditions and mental health care to offset the effects of the Negative Zone could probably eliminate a charge of deliberate indifference. Finally, it would be difficult to argue that imprisonment in the Negative Zone denies the minimum civilized measure of life’s necessities. “The Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons,” as the Farmer court noted,*10* only humane ones, and the Negative Zone is probably not bad enough to run afoul of the Eighth Amendment under the circumstances.

Forcible Removal of Superpowers

The DC supervillain Timothy Karnes had the power to transform into a demonic superbeing (Sabbac) by uttering a word of power. After being caught by Captain Marvel and transformed back into his human form, Karnes’s larynx was surgically removed in order to prevent him from turning back into Sabbac. Is this cruel and unusual?

A real-world parallel is chemical castration, where convicted sex offenders, usually pedophiles, are treated with a hormonal drug routinely used as a contraceptive in women. While it has four side effects in women, in men the drug results in a massively reduced sex drive.

Sabbac (Timothy Karnes version)

About a dozen states use chemical castration in at least some cases, and there does not appear to have been a successful challenge on constitutional grounds. This may in part be due to the fact that a significant percentage of the offenders who are given the treatment volunteer for it, as it offers a way of controlling their urges. If the person being sentenced does not object, it’s hard for anyone else to come up with standing for a lawsuit.*11* Either way, despite health and civil rights concerns, this appears to be a viable sentence in the United States legal system.

But is should not be hard to see that physically and permanently removing someone’s ability to speak is not exactly the same as putting a reversible (or even permanent) chemical damper on their sex drive. It’s entirely possible to live an otherwise normal life with a low sex drive, but being mute interferes with essential daily activities in a far more intrusive way. So while the idea of physical modification to the human body is not unconstitutional on its face, it remains to be seen whether this degree of modification would be permitted. For example, while chemical castration appears to be constitutional, it’s pretty likely that physical castration would not be. We can only say “pretty likely” because Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court case that upheld (eight to one!) a Virginia statute instituting compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives,” has never been expressly overturned, and tens of thousands of compulsory sterilizations occurred in the United States after Buck, most recently in 1981.*12*

On the other hand, Karnes isn’t your run-of-the-mill offender. He’s possessed by six demonic entities and capable of wreaking an immense amount of destruction. Part of the analysis in determining whether or not a punishment is cruel and unusual is whether or not the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.*13* This is, in part, why the Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty for rape cases. If the crime as such doesn’t leave anyone dead, execution seems to be a disproportionate response.*14*

The Eighth Amendment also prohibits “the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” including those “totally without penological justification.”*15* Here, though, there is a clear penological justification, namely the prevention of future crimes, and the laryngectomy, a routine medical procedure frequently used in those suffering from throat cancer, could be carried out in a humane manner without the infliction of unnecessary pain.

There are other criteria by which a punishment is judged, including whether it accords with human dignity and whether it is shocking or contrary to fundamental fairness. But in a case like this, necessity goes a long way, especially because the purpose of the operation is not retributive punishment but rather incapacitation. If the only way to prevent Karnes from assuming his demonic form is to render him mute, then it’s possible that the courts would go along with that, particularly if it proved impossible to contain him otherwise and the operation was carried out in a humane manner.

However, what if taking away someone’s powers could be done with no other side effects? In X-Men: The Last Stand and various stories in the comic books, someone develops a “cure” for mutation, which removes or mitigates a mutant’s powers without really affecting them in any other way. This is far more like the chemical castration situation, but unlike that, a “cure” wouldn’t even remove any functions a normal human has. It’s very unlikely that a court would recognize this as being unconstitutionally inhumane, provided their offense was serious enough to justify this rather harsh sentence.


*1* Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256 (1974) (holding that reversing the Presidential pardon which reduced a death sentence to life without parole would be unconstitutional).

*2* See, e.g., Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 19190 (2011).

*3* See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 48 (2008) (“This Court has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.”)

*4* Id. at 46.

*5* Id.

*6* Id.

*7* Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002) (holding that handcuffing an inmate to a hitching post outdoors for several hours with inadequate water and restroom breaks violated the Eighth Amendment) (quotations and citations omitted).

*8* Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).

*9* Id. at 833.

*10* Id.

*11* “Standing” is essentially having the right status to bring a lawsuit. Under Article III of the Constitution, courts only have jurisdiction over “cases and controversies,” and the Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the plaintiff has to have suffered some kind of actual injury. So a person can bring a lawsuit on the basis of injury to himself, but generally lacks “standing” to bring a lawsuit on the basis of injuries to someone else. The injured person has to do it. In this case, the mutant being sentenced would have to bring the lawsuit on his own behalf, so if he consents to the procedure, no one else is going to be sufficiently injured to have “standing.”

*12* Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927); Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generation, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (2008) (documenting the history of compulsory sterilization in the United States); Eugenics Victims to Get Apology, Eugene Register-Guard, Nov. 16, 2002, at 2B (noting that sterilizations occurred in Oregon through 1981).

*13* Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 21 (2003).

*14* Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) (“As it relates to crimes against individuals… the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.”).

*15* Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002).

Wow, that’s a lot to digest. But, I feel like a learned something — or, at least, got a better feel for how some of that legal stuff works and how it might work in a world with superpowered beings. I hope some of you are getting something out of these posts, too, ‘cuz I’ve got one more scheduled for a couple weeks from now. TTFN…

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