Was Captain Kirk Legally Right to Sentence Khan to Ceti Alpha V?

Khan Noonlen Singh attempted to murder Captain James T. Kirk and take over the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek episode “The Space Seed.” Khan was sentence by Captain Kirk to Ceti Alpha V, to follow the Paradise Lost maxim that it is “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” Ironically, that came true after Ceti Alpha VI exploded.

Did Captain Kirk have the authority to sentence Khan, his followers, and Lieutenant Marla McGivers, to Ceti Alpha V?

If Starfleet followed similar regulations to the United States Navy, commanding officers have the power for non-judicial punishment to those onboard their vessel for minor offenses, which is known as “Captain’s Mast.” 10 U.S.C. § 815; Cappella v. United States (1980) 224 Ct.Cl. 162, 164. However, mutiny is not minor.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice has the precedent to govern “the conduct of those persons in the military or those directly connected with it, in all places, foreign and domestic.” United States v. Burney (U.S.C.M.A. 1956) 21 CMR 98, 112-113, citing Article 5, Uniform Code of Military Justice, 50 USC § 555. Furthermore, someone subject to court martial who “willfully and wrongfully hazards or suffers to be hazarded any vessel of the armed forces shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court martial may direct.” 2012 Manual for Courts-Martial Article 110.

The USS Enterprise found the SS Botany Bay adrift in space. The crew of the Enterprise saved Khan’s life while he was he being revived from suspended animation. Khan recovered on the USS Enterprise, taking the opportunity to study the technical manuals of the Enterprise. As such, Khan would have been “embarked” onboard the USS Enterprise, which is defined as “to go on on board (as a boat or airplane),” thus subjecting him to the regulations onboard the vessel. See, Royal Caribbean Cruises v. United States (S.D.Fla. May 31, 1995, Case No. 95-204-CIV-ATKINS) 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8243, at *4., citing Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Khan willfully endangered the USS Enterprise by first taking control of the vessel by cutting off life support from the Engine Room, torturing Captain Kirk in a decompression chamber, and ultimately attempting to destroy the Enterprise with warp core overload. Kirk arguably could have had Khan prosecuted and executed for his crimes. Instead, Kirk dropped all the charges against Khan and his followers. Giving Khan the choice to colonize Ceti Alpha V was a far less severe punishment than death, however, far more severe than placing them in a rehabilitation facility. This sentence could logically be seen as proportional to their crimes.

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Lieutenant McGivers willfully participated in a mutiny onboard the Enterprise by helping Khan beam over to the Botany Bay, revive his crew, and then beam them back to the Enterprise. If Starfleet had similar laws to the United States, she could have been fined and/or imprisoned for not more than ten years. 18 U.S.C. § 2193. McGivers took the plea deal to avoid a court martial. This was effectively a life sentence to spend the rest of her life with Khan on a barely habitable planet. McGivers should have talked with a lawyer before accepting the plea deal.

Captain Kirk was arguably within his legal rights to give Khan the option to colonize Ceti Alpha V. It appeared Kirk held what would have been “special court martial at sea,” or in this case, space, in order to adjudicate the charges against Khan. After dropping the charges, Kirk gave Khan an offer for a new life. While the Federation might have wanted to have a war crimes trial for Khan over the Eugenic Wars, this issue was moot with Kirk settling the Augments on a new world to tame.

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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.