Darth Vader on Trial

It’s Father’s Day, which makes it a perfect time for us to talk about everyone’s favorite absentee father with a penchant for black—Darth Vader.

Apart from the recently inserted “NOOOOO,” Anakin Skywalker’s story comes to a poignant close in Return of the Jedi. After years as Palpatine’s stooge, Anakin finally wakes up and chucks that bag of bones down a very conveniently placed chasm. Anakin then chokes out a few touching last words before going to Jedi heaven. Applause and teary eyes ensue and the ewoks throw a big tree house jamboree…complete with a really creepy set of Imperial helmet drums.

 We all know those last scenes by heart. But what if Return of the Jedi had ended differently? 

Darth Vader looked on as his former master helplessly tumbled into the gaping maw below. Anakin’s decision had already taken an awful toll, as the Emperor’s uncontrolled Force lightning seared his body and severely damaged the life support systems integrated into his armor.

Inside Anakin’s helmet, a cascade of urgent warnings flashed before his eyes as the suit diagnostics cataloged the damage to its systems. But Anakin knew his armor as if it were a dark extension of his own body. He knew it was salvageable. Despite the pain coursing through him, he knew that his battered body would also endure, as it had for so long. As alarm claxons blared and the mighty second Death Star crumbled around them, Luke was intensely focused on securing their escape.

The two boarded a small shuttle and the boarding ramp hissed closed, muffling the din of the chaos raging outside. Anakin remained in the passenger hold alone as Luke hurriedly prepped the shuttle for takeoff. It was oddly quiet, save for the rhythmic mechanical wheeze of Anakin’s taxed respirator. As the shuttle broke clear of the explosion, Anakin silently wondered what would come next.

Vader just needs a little Windex, a *gently* used replacement mechanical hand, and maybe a gentle exfoliating seaweed wrap and he’ll be as good as new.

What if Darth Vader had survived his showdown with the Emperor and been taken into Rebel Alliance custody? As hilarious as it is to picture Vader waltzing into Bright Tree Village to crash the ewok bonanza, the scenario raises some really intriguing legal issues. Chief among them is the question of how the Rebel Alliance would have handled its newest prisoner of war. Would the former Dark Lord of the Sith be put on trial for war crimes?

Before jumping to the conclusion that Vader would be summarily forced to walk the plank on Mustafar or be sentenced to hard labor at a Tatooine sand factory, it’s worth asking what the Alliance would have done with their newest POW.   

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War is never a pretty business, but there is a long-standing history of holding individuals accountable for violating its laws and customs. Public trials or tribunals are probably the most well known way that the law of war is enforced. Trials and courts-martial for war crimes have been seen throughout nearly every major conflict of the last century, from the Nuremberg trials of World War II to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Before we dive in any deeper, we’ll go ahead and assume that the Alliance had the capability to put Darth Vader on trial, even if that’s a stretch considering their fledgling nature.

For all the Vader haters out there, putting the Dark Lord on trial for war crimes probably seems like a no brainer. After all, if it weren’t for Vader, Mace Windu would still have a hand, Yoda wouldn’t be living in a mud hut, and all those dear sweet younglings would be…well, still alive. But in reality, Vader’s capture would have come at a seminal point in the galactic war—one that would have made the question of what to do with him incredibly difficult.

At the time of his capture, Darth Vader would have been one of the most hated and feared members of the Galactic Empire. The Alliance long considered him to be one of the highest value targets in the Imperial hierarchy, second only to the Emperor himself. Palpatine’s death by Death Star shaft would have quickly elevated Vader to be public enemy number one. As a result, Rebels of all ranks would have been clamoring to have his helmet on a platter.

In the real world, the fact that someone may have committed war crimes does not automatically mean that they are put on trial. There are always a host of negotiations and debates before anyone steps foot into a courtroom. The Rebel Alliance would be no different, and its leadership would want to discuss Vader’s fate before jumping to any conclusions or analyzing the evidence and case against him.

It is hereby decreed that Frankenstein C-3PO shall be the judge, jury, and executioner of his maker.

As Alliance High Command began its debate over what to do with Vader, Luke and Leia would have quickly found themselves in an impossible position. Both were powerful members of the Alliance with the ability to influence the Alliance’s decision on how to handle Vader.

Luke would have been powerfully compelled to come to his father’s side. Luke’s desire to protect those closest to him was a constant motivator for him, much like his father. Luke had just witnessed his father turn back from the abyss of the Dark Side, only to have his life once again be put on the line as the Alliance considered his fate.

Whether it’s rushing back to the Lars’ Homestead, Cloud City, or Jabba’s Palace, Luke doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to exercising restraint and patience when his friends or family are in danger. When those close to him are in trouble, Luke has a penchant for seeing himself as the savior or protector. The same temptation would have been present with his father’s fate. As the only person who saw Vader kill the Emperor, Luke would have known that he was an essential witness for his father. Anakin could testify to those facts, but there is little chance anyone would believe him given his infamy. In contrast, Luke was a legendary member of the Alliance. When he spoke, others listened and followed. Therefore, in Luke’s mind, he was the key to any scrap of hope for his father.

Leia faced an even more complex choice than her brother. Her loyalty to family would have weighed heavily upon her decision. After learning of Anakin’s survival from Luke, Leia would have been faced her real father for the first time—a man whose armored visage was undoubtedly burned into many of her most terrible memories. Nevertheless, that sudden reunion would have been a great weight upon her shoulders. Luke’s zeal to help would have only increased that weight.

But while Luke had been a member of the Alliance orchestra, fighting in numerous battles, she had been one of its conductors, having dedicated the formative years of her life to helping shape and lead the organization. Her dedication to duty and the Alliance cause would have been an equally heavy weight upon Leia. On one hand, Leia knew that she wielded considerable influence—influence that she could probably leverage in her father’s favor. However, on the other hand, Leia would be keenly aware of the importance of the bigger picture, including the Alliance’s survival and its efforts to end the war. Leia was no stranger to making impossible decisions like this. She faced a similar one on the bridge of the first Death Star when she chose not to betray the Alliance at the cost of her home world.

Leia is the first contestant on the Galactic Empire’s newest gameshow, Deal or No Deal: DEATH STAR Edition

Any temptation to help Anakin would have carried a grave risk for both Luke and Leia. As ROTJ ends, their relationship to Vader was a closely held secret. If either Luke or Leia came to Anakin’s defense, there is simply no way the relationship would have remained hidden. The revelation that they were Darth Vader’s children would have been explosive news. At best, both Luke and Leia would be stripped of their influence in the Alliance. At worst, they would be regarded as spies and traitors.

Luke and Leia would have fully realized that risk and played a limited role in Anakin’s fate as a result. Luke would have realized that he was in a unique position to help both his father and his sister. Luke could stand beside his father and advocate for clemency while not endangering the Alliance’s greater cause. The shock and backlash would be fierce, not unlike what John Adams faced when he came to the defense of British Soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. However, he could absorb the blows, knowing that he would soon be stepping away from the Alliance to follow his new path as a Jedi.

Meanwhile, Leia could fill a central role in the negotiations without revealing her secret or jeopardizing the fragile Alliance. Her close relationship with Luke was well known, so it wouldn’t be odd for her to call for others to listen to his testimony and pleas. At the same time, her personal experience with Vader’s terror provided a solid counter balance that would have given her credibility as a negotiator. Leia thus could have wielded her influence in the process without risking the greater good.

The feel when you realize that you want to propose to Leia, but you have to talk to her father, the Dark Lord of the Sith about it first.

The Alliance debate would have been equally swayed by other factors. Chief among those would be using Darth Vader to help quickly end the war. While ROTJ may have ended in a big party with space teddy bears, the war was far from over. Recent stories like the Shattered Empire comic, Aftermath trilogy, and upcoming the Battlefront II single player campaign make it clear that the Empire did not simply collapse just because the Emperor died.

Many in the Alliance would see Darth Vader as the linchpin to quickly ending the war. Vader would have been a goldmine of valuable intelligence of all aspects of the Imperial war machine. He also had a mythic reputation on the battlefield. Leveraging his knowledge and fighting abilities could mean a swift end to the fighting, which would have been incredibly tempting.

At the same time, taking any action short of a trial would risk undermining the Alliance’s legitimacy. Restoring justice to the galaxy was one of the Alliance’s core aims. Even if Darth Vader provided substantial help in ending the war, the Alliance would risk fracturing itself if he was not put on trial. Vader cut a wide and deep path of death and devastation during his time at the Emperor’s side. Alliance worlds bearing those scars would not simply stand by while the man responsible was let off. Likewise, many citizens regarded Vader as a symbol of Imperial leadership and oppression. If a man so widely regarded as evil avoided justice, their trust in the Alliance would be shattered. With one decision, the Alliance could lose the support of its members and the citizens of the galaxy they had fought so long for.

VERY IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: So, did the Rebel Alliance just happen to bring along a bunch of fireworks for the X-Wings just in case they won?

Get those high powered Coruscant criminal defense firms on speed dial, because there is almost no doubt that Anakin Skywalker would have faced trial. Luke and Leia might shape the debate to some degree, but they probably do very little to stem the fervor to hold him accountable. Although Alliance High Command might be open to a bargain in exchange for Vader’s military assistance, they would have no choice but to put him on trial.

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Thomas Harper
Thomas is a Captain in the US Army serving as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer. During his time in the JAG Corps, he has served in a variety of positions, including as an Operational Law attorney advising on the law of war and rules of engagement in Afghanistan. After completing 7 years on active duty, he now serves in the Army Reserves as a military defense counsel, representing accused soldiers at courts-martial and other proceedings. While he loves all things geek, he is a massive Star Wars fan, collector, and the reigning back-to-back Dragon Con Star Wars Super Fan trivia champion. His frequently favorable comments regarding the Empire and Dark Side are his own and do not reflect those of the DoD and Army. Follow his ramblings about the galaxy far far away on Twitter at @thomasLharper.