The Agents of SHIELD mid-season taught a powerful life lesson: Revenge missions result in evil being released on Earth, specifically in the forms of Lash and the Extreme Ancient Hell Beast Supreme HYDRA from an alien moon. The bad guys won at the end of the day with a lot of dead Inhumans, HYDRA achieving their goal, and Lash free to run amuck.

How did this all happen? Director Phil Coulson turned into Captain Ahab in his pursuit of Grant Ward. Coulson set out to kill Ward, which is highly problematic, because SHIELD is a rogue epigone law enforcement agency acting on its own.

Coulson actions to order the killing of Ward were a conspiracy to commit murder. It is undisputed that Grant Ward is a traitor, terrorist, and has actively participated in rebellion and insurrection against the United States. However, from a law enforcement perspective, Ward would be a high value target for the FBI and CIA. The goal would be to arrest Ward and prosecute him for his crimes.

The killings of U.S. Citizens who are engaged in terrorism are currently hot legal issues. It is one thing if a citizen is killed by the military in combat while they are actively waging war against the U.S. overseas. “Targeted killings” of U.S. Citizens by drones is another matter entirely.

The “DOJ White Paper” is a 16-page memorandum on when the United States could engage in a targeted killing of a U.S. Citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al-Qa’ida or Associated Force. The three factors for a targeted killing of a US citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al-Qa’ida per the memo require:

  1. An informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States
  2. Capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and
  3. The operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with the applicable law of principles.

The memo states that targeting a member of an enemy force who poses an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States is not unlawful, because it is a matter of national defense.

Assuming the United States in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prepared similar legal analysis for HYDRA, Coulson’s kill order of Grant Ward is illegal on its face.

Director Coulson is not an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government. Coulson is leading a rogue agency, which arguably would qualify as a terrorist organization, even if SHIELD is engaged in their view of national defense. As such, Coulson determining that Ward posed “an imminent threat of violence against the United States,” has zero legality.

There is no evidence that the capture of Grant Ward is infeasible. Ward’s capture might be infeasible by SHIELD, but the resources of the FBI, CIA, and military, far surpass Coulson’s ability to conduct national defense or law enforcement.

Finally, Coulson’s operation to kill Ward was not consistent with any applicable laws. Yes, the final act of murder was on an alien moon, but the chase to find Ward was conducted in the United States and an illegal operation into the United Kingdom. Moreover, Coulson’s act of killing Ward was after Ward had been subdued, with Coulson using his robotic hand to crush Ward’s ribcage. The US military and CIA does not commit roadside executions overseas, however, the Director of SHIELD apparently does if his girlfriend is killed.

Per the established [legally suspect] rules for targeted killing, Phil Coulson had no legal authority to kill Grant Ward. Perhaps if rules of engagement had been followed, neither Lash and Mega-Evil-Undead-Ward would not be on the rampage for future seasons. Lesson learned: the Director of SHIELD should not act like the Punisher.

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Josh Gilliland
Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg for 2013 to 2016, and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.

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