The Defense of Darth Vader

When last we met in our alternate Return of the Jedi reality, Darth Vader survived the Emperor’s Force lightning after chucking him down a chasm in the Death Star like a dirty shirt down a laundry chute. The victorious Rebel Alliance promptly thanked Vader by deciding that he should be put on trial for war crimes. Now that we’re all caught up, let’s turn to the business of strategizing how to defend one of the most reviled men in the galaxy.

Despite what some Empire haters out there might think, even someone as detestable (or awesome, depending on your point of view) as Darth Vader would be entitled to legal counsel to mount an adequate defense. Even though he’d likely be tried before a special war crimes tribunal, Vader would still be entitled to legal counsel. Defendants in real world war crimes trials have long enjoyed the right to counsel, such as in the Nuremburg Trials following World War II in 1945, where 24 of the most notorious Nazi leaders were each afforded legal counsel, as well as roughly 70 assistants, clerks, and lawyers. In more recent history, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo Bay detainees must be afforded attorneys before being tried.

The Rebel Alliance is an organization built on restoring democracy and the rule of law, which means they would take great care to ensure that Darth Vader received a fair trial. Vader’s capture would inevitably result in impassioned calls for his summary execution. Giving in to that sentiment would make the Alliance no better than the Empire. Mon Mothma, a leader accustomed to making difficult choices, would not hesitate in declaring that Vader should be afforded a defense team and a neutral venue.

URoRRuR’R’R demands that Darth Vader be turned over to the Tusken Raiders to face sand people justice for his massacre in Attack of the Clones. The maximum punishment: Death by sand.

Galactic attorneys wouldn’t exactly jump at the chance to defend the Dark Lord of the Sith. However, just like John Adams stepping forward to defend British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, Star Wars has a history of individuals coming to the defense of the damned. Anakin’s own wife did so when she defended young padawan Ahsoka Tano during the Clone Wars. Years after Return of the Jedi, his daughter Leia would offer to do the same for a fellow senator in the novel Bloodline. The brave soul who steps forward to defend Darth Vader would have a tall task ahead of them. The Alliance would muster all available resources to pursue a seemingly endless slate of charges against Vader, including, but not limited to:

  • Aggravated assault
  • Aiding the enemy
  • Communicating a threat
  • Cruelty and maltreatment of subordinates
  • Dueling
  • Genocide
  • Maiming
  • Murder (by manual strangulation)
  • Murder (by Force strangulation)
  • Murder (by Force push)
  • Murder (by lightsaber)
  • Murder (by fists)
  • Stalking
  • Torture
  • Treason

If we took up the matter of strategizing a defense for every possible charge against Vader, this article would be long enough to make the average Game of Thrones novel look like a Little Golden Book. Instead, we’ll focus on just a few of the possible charges seen in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. We’ll also avoid all the Skywalker family drama by not addressing the potential defense of lack of mental responsibility, even though it could arguably extend to just about all of Vader’s crimes.

The Destruction of Alderaan

Today’s forecast on Alderaan: Sunny with a chance of superlaser-induced cataclysm.

Alderaan would undoubtedly be the focal point for Alliance prosecutors. While the Galactic Empire was like a greatest hits album of awful injustices, the obliteration of Alderaan and its civilian population was its single worst crime. Darth Vader would be charged with the genocide of the Alderaanian people. The planet’s destruction fits the Geneva Convention definition of genocide, which is the “killing and other acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Such a crime would be considered a “grave breach” of the Convention, which is a category reserved for the worst offenses.

Even though Darth Vader did not pull the switch that actually fired the superlaser, the Alliance would seek to hold him responsible because of his position and authority. As the Emperor’s black clad lapdog and a ranking Imperial military leader, prosecutors would argue that Vader bears criminal responsibility for Alderaan. In the real world, military commanders have been held legally responsible for the crimes of their subordinates under certain circumstances as far back as the 1400s. Commanders aren’t strictly liable for every offense committed by their subordinates. Instead, the commander’s personal dereliction must have contributed to or failed to prevent the offense.

The Alliance would argue that Vader, a central Imperial figure, had an undeniable central role with the battle station, given its scale and importance to the Imperial war machine. Vader’s defense would be built around establishing that he had no command or control over the Death Star. Vader would do so by putting on evidence of his truly limited role with the station.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I give you your incredibly high-cheekboned scapegoat.

For starters, Darth Vader had virtually no role in developing or building the station. Those tasks fell to Director Krennic, the Empire’s resident cape aficionado, and ultimately Governor Wilhuff Tarkin. Both officers were intimately involved with the project since its origin as an unfinished Geonosian schematic, while Vader and his deep skepticism of the project remained on the periphery.

There was also a stark difference in military standing between Tarkin and Vader. While Tarkin was a Grand Moff, a special high-level rank established by Palpatine, Vader no formal military rank. Although he commanded his own Star Destroyer and occasionally led military operations, Vader was more of an attaché or personal enforcer than a traditional field commander.

By virtue of his rank and intimate involvement with the project, it was Tarkin—not Vader—who assumed military control over the weapon once it was operational. Tarkin controlled the weapon above Scarif while Vader merely handled cleanup duty with the Rebel fleet. Following that battle, Vader remained merely a role player, carrying out the singular task of hunting for the station’s plans. Even Princess Leia seemed aware of the hierarchy, telling Tarkin that she wasn’t surprised to find him holding Vader’s leash.

Finally, it was Tarkin who ordered the Death Star to Alderaan and gave the command for it to fire. Vader’s failure to intervene was not a dereliction, because short of a direct command from the Emperor, Vader had no ability to order Tarkin to stand down on his own battle station. Vader therefore arguably had no command or control over the weapon, which would sever his criminal responsibility and give him a solid defense against the genocide charge.

Torture of Leia & Han

Vader calls this ‘aggressive questioning,’ which makes it totally not torture.

Even though Vader did not permanently damage Leia and Han, he would still be in deep Bantha poodoo over allegedly torturing them. The United Nations defines torture as the infliction of severe pain or suffering for unlawful purposes such as obtaining a confession, punishment, or to intimidate or coerce. Torture is uniformly outlawed under international law, including the Geneva Conventions.

In A New Hope, Vader introduced Leia to the Empire’s IT-O interrogation droid, also known as the “torture droid,” as he sought to coerce information about the Alliance’s hidden base (yes, that dreadful floating black ball with a giant needle has a name). Similarly, in Empire, Vader strapped poor Han into a literal torture chair so that his pain would reverberate through the Force to coax Luke into his trap. Both of these acts unquestionably qualify as torture under international law.

I don’t even know what to write here, except that you can buy a Han Solo action figure with an actual toy torture rack.

However, knowing that these acts are torture and proving them in a court of law are two very different things. In Leia’s case, prosecutors would absolutely need her to testify. The guards who witnessed the interrogation, any holo-recordings, and the interrogation droid itself would have all been annihilated with the Death Star. Leia also bore no permanent scars from the incident, which would make her testimony all the more essential. Real world prosecutions are regularly stalled due to non-cooperative witnesses. Testifying as a crime victim is often a terrifying experience that can take an incredible psychological toll.

Leia would feel that same pressure when deciding whether to testify. On one hand, she would face tremendous pressure from the Alliance to testify against one of its most notorious enemies. On the other hand, she would also feel a powerful internal struggle over stemming from her relationship with Vader. Her reluctance would be enhanced knowing that her father had finally redeemed himself. If Leia took the stand, she would face the very real possibility that her testimony would doom her father a short time after he had finally been freed from the grip of the Dark Side. Nonetheless, without her testimony, the prosecution could not prove that torture occurred, thereby sinking their case.

If she did testify, the defense would have to argue that exigent circumstances necessitated Vader’s actions. At the time, the Alliance had just stolen the technical data for the Death Star in order to exploit it for a weakness that could help them destroy the station. The lives of untold thousands aboard the station depended on his ability to find the plans and stop the imminent attack. Darth Vader therefore had little alternative but to aggressively question Leia.

Audience question for Mr. Calrissian: Did Cloud City just have a torture chair lying around or did Darth Vader bring his own?

Han’s torture presents slightly different circumstances for the defense. Fresh off learning that Vader is his terrifying new father-in-law, Han would have a struggle akin to Leia’s over possibly testifying. However, while the witnesses to Leia’s torture were all vaporized, the Alliance could probably find one or two other witnesses or some Cloud City security footage to support Han’s charge.

Vader’s defense team would be in tougher straits with this charge. Unlike with Leia, there was no imminent Rebel attack and thus no exigent circumstances. Vader didn’t even ask Han any questions, as he real purpose was simply to inflict pain in an effort to draw Luke out of hiding. So, Vader would likely argue duress. Duress is an affirmative defense in which a person admits to doing something as a direct result of some pressure, threat, or violence. Vader would claim that he feared death or grievous bodily injury at the hands of Palpatine if he did not deliver Luke Skywalker.

The Emperor viewed Luke as the most pressing threat to the Empire and had ordered Vader to kill or turn Luke to the Dark Side shortly before Han’s torture. As a murderous maniacal Sith Lord, the Emperor did not take failure lightly. Consequently, Vader harbored a legitimate fear that he would be killed or seriously injured if he failed. With Luke in hiding, Vader resorted to torturing Han as a last-ditch effort to lure Luke to Cloud City. Therefore, while Han’s torture was unlawful, Vader only did so because of the looming threat presented by the Emperor.

“Pleading guilty is a perfectly acceptable alternative in extreme circumstances. The Rebel Alliance may be gracious enough to…”

Defending Darth Vader would be one of the toughest jobs in the galaxy, right behind being Jabba the Hutt’s personal bathing assistant. After all, there is a big difference between having a possible or technical defense to a crime and actually getting a judge or jury to buy it. Vader’s hulking presence and rhythmic unnerving breathing at counsel table probably also wouldn’t help the situation. But affording Vader a robust defense and a fair trial would allow the Alliance to put its money where its mouth is, proving their commitment to the restoration of justice in the galaxy.

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Thomas Harper
Thomas is a Captain in the US Army serving on active duty 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. He currently serves 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. You can follow his ramblings about the galaxy on Twitter at @thomasLharper or on Instagram at tmoss185.