The First Order used internally conscripted Stormtroopers for at best summary executions and at worse extrajudicial killing for capital punishment. The status as a Stormtrooper Executioner was denoted by a David Bowie Aladdin Sane-style black mark across the helmet, along with carbon-finish on the shoulders. According to The Last Jedi Visual Dictionary, Executioners could be any Trooper assigned to the duty of carrying out capital punishment. The helmets disguised their voices and personal identification number was not broadcast to other Stormtroopers.
There is a galactic problem with summary executions: there is no due process of law. No right to counsel. No trial. Nothing. Just an extrajudicial murder to instill loyalty into Stormtroopers.
In The Last Jedi, Finn and Rose were captured in First Order uniforms in the midst of committing an act of sabotage on Supreme Leader Snoke’s ship the Supremacy. Captain Phasma ordered their immediate execution by laser ax with a monomolecular energy ribbon with cycling power. This form of execution was selected because “it would hurt.”
There are multiple problems with ordering the immediate deaths of the Resistance prisoners. The first is the lack of a trial, even for someone committing an act of espionage and the second is whether the First Order is actually a nation-state.
Execution without a Trial
Military usage has permitted the execution of spies, both as a means of punishment and prevention. United States ex rel. Wessels v. McDonald, 265 F. 754, 762-63 (E.D.N.Y. 1920). The traditional definition of a spy is someone “individual acting clandestinely or on false pretenses, who obtains, or seeks to obtain, information in the zone of operations of a belligerent with the intention of communicating it to the hostile party.” Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, The Hague, July 29, 1899, 32 Stat. vol. 2, pp. 1818, 1819. However, spies dating back to the Revolutionary War were tried by military tribunal or court-martial. Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 42, fn 14 (1942).
The First Order had nothing remotely resembling a military tribunal or court-martial for Finn and Rose. Captain Phasma ordered their deaths on the hanger deck of Snoke’s ship with the intent to cause them pain.
International law recognizes four acts that are subject to unequivocal international condemnation: torture, summary execution, genocide and slavery. Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F.2d 774, 791 (1984), citing Blum & Steinhardt, Federal Jurisdiction over International Human Rights Claims: The Alien Tort Claims Act after Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 22 HARV. INT’L L.J. 53, 90 (1981); see also P. SIEGHART, THE INTERNATIONAL LAW OF HUMAN RIGHTS 48 (1983). Moreover, summary executions are “murder conducted in uniform,” as opposed to lawful, state-imposed violence. Id.
The First Order could have tried Finn was for treason (assuming the First Order is a nation-state), specifically for helping Poe Dameron escape the Finalizer and desertion. Finn should have had the opportunity to argue he had been ordered to commit a war crime on Jakku and offer a defense to the charges against him.
The First Order could have charged Finn, Rose, and DJ, with conspiracy, espionage, and sabotage, for their plan on the Supremacy. Instead, the First Order planned to carry out immediate executions in the most painful manner possible with laser axes with a monomolecular energy ribbons with cycling power.
An execution is cruel and unusual punishment if the method presents a “substantial” or “objectively intolerable” risk of serious harm. Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 40 (2008). Other courts have articulated the legal standard for determining whether a form of execution violations the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment as follows:
1) Presents a substantial risk that a prisoner will suffer unnecessary and wanton pain in an execution;
2) Violates the evolving standards of decency that mark a mature society, and
3) Minimizes physical violence and mutilation of the prisoner’s body.
State v. Mata, 275 Neb. 1, 48, 745 N.W.2d 229, 266 (2008).
The United States has allowed executions, starting with hangings at the founding of the country, later firing squads, to finding the most “humane and practical” methods for executions “known to modern science.” Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2731 (2015). These methods have included electrocution, because it was thought to be less painful and more humane than hanging, to the gas chamber, to lethal injection. Id.
Traitors at common law were punished for treason by death with a vengeance. The punishment included being publicly dragged to the place of execution and there drawn, quartered and beheaded. See, United States v. Kawakita, 96 F. Supp. 824, 860 (S.D. Cal. 1950).
Beheading Finn and Rose with laser axes would meet the textbook definition of “objectively intolerable” risk of serious harm. This form of execution would be cruel and unusual punishment in gross violation of human rights.
The First Order is Not a Nation-State
The First Order is a political movement of Neo-Imperials who wish to rule the galaxy like the Empire. They do not have a home planet, instead operating on the Supremacy as their capital. Their plan was to take over the galaxy after destroying the Republic. As such, the act of destroying the Hosnian system was itself an act of terrorism. All subsequent acts against the Resistance were nothing short of murder in the name of politics.
Since the First Order is not a nation-state, they do not have the legal right to treat Finn and Rose as spies attempting to commit an act of sabotage. The Resistance was rightfully exercising their right to self-defense by a terrorist organization attempting to take over the galaxy. As such, Stormtrooper Executioners best rethink their life choices before they behead anyone, unless they wish to be prosecuted for extrajudicial murder.