A Solo Train Robbing Adventure

Solo A Star Wars Story has a train robbery on the planet Vandor to steal Coaxium from the Empire as a major plot of the film.  The crime of train robbing had its heyday in a time long ago in U.S. states and territories. Unexpectedly, the punishments for train robbing in the United States and the Empire would be extremely similar, expect Beckett’s Bandits would at least get a trial in the US.

The Crime of Train Robbing 

Laws are not enacted proactively. The “train robbing” statutes of the late 19th Century were born out of specific events in the “Old West,” such as the Union Pacific Big Springs Robbery of 1877 or the crimes of Jesse James.  The state of Missouri declared train robbing as a felony punishable by death or imprisonment in 1895. The law stated:

Any person who shall place upon any railroad track any obstruction or explosive substance, or shall remove, displace or injure any rail, tie, switch, frog, bridge or trestle, with the design of robbing any person, passenger, employee, agent or company on any railway train, engine, tender, car, or coach, on any railway in this state, or who shall in any way stop, detain, or arrest the progress of any such train, car, engine, tender or coach with the intent to commit robbery thereon, or having in any way entered any car, coach, tender, engine, express car, mail car, or other apartment of any such train, shall there rob any person or persons, employee, passenger or agent, or any express company or mail pouch or car, of any money or valuable thing, whatsoever, either the property of such person, agent, passenger or employee, or the property of another in his care or custody, shall be guilty of a felony, and on conviction shall be punished by death, or confinement in the penitentiary for a term of not less than ten years.

State v. Kennedy, 154 Mo. 268, 281-82, (1900), citing Laws 1895, p. 160

The Defendant, ironically named John F. Kennedy, and his co-conspirators forcibly entered a train car, threatened a train employee to leave the mail car, and cut the train cars free of the engine. The robbers moved the train a quarter of a mile and blew up a safe in front of the employee to steal $1,000 (approximately $29888.58 in 2017 adjusted for inflation). Kennedy, at *283.

The Defendant challenged the train robbing charges, claiming the element that the robbery was committed “in the presence, and against the will and by violence, or putting the agent in fear of immediate injury to his person” was not met, because the train employees were not threatened with fear. Id. The Court rejected this argument, because it is unnecessary to prove actual fear when the crime is done violently and against someone’s will, the law will presume fear. Kennedy, at *284. As the crime was a series of events that ended with explosives used on the safe, all the elements of the crime were met.

Train Robbery Was Punishable By Death

The Territory of New Mexico had a similar train robbing law to Missouri that stated:

If any person or persons shall willfully and maliciously make any assault upon any railroad train, railroad cars, or railroad locomotive within this Territory, for the purpose and with the intent to commit murder, robbery, or any other felony upon or against any passenger on said train or cars, or upon or against any engineer, conductor, fireman, brakeman, or any officer or employee connected with said locomotive, train or cars, or upon or against any express messenger, or mail agent on said train, or in any of the cars thereof, on conviction thereof shall be deemed guilty of a felony and shall suffer the punishment of death.

Terr. of N.M. v. Ketchum, 1901-NMSC-006, ¶ 1, 10 N.M. 718, 718, citing 1151 of the Compiled Laws of 1897.

The Defendant in New Mexico challenged the death penalty for train robbing as a violation against the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court rejected the challenge and upheld the death sentence with the following logic:

Trains are robbed by armed bands of desperate men, determined upon the accomplishment of their purpose, and nothing will prevent the consummation of their design, not even the necessity to take human life. They commence their operations by over-powering the engineer and fireman. They run the train to some suitable locality. They prevent the interference of any person on the train by intimidation or by the use of deadly weapons and go so far as to take human life in so preventing that interference. They prevent any person from leaving the train for the purpose of placing danger signals upon the track to prevent collisions with other trains, thus willfully and deliberately endangering the life of every passenger on board. If the express messenger or train crew resist their attack upon the cars, they promptly kill them. In this and many other ways they display their utter disregard of human life and property, and show that they are outlaws of the most desperate and dangerous character.

Terr. of N.M. v. Ketchum, ¶ 14.

Judge Frank A. Parker clearly saw the evils of train robbing.

Got to Be Better Ways to Make Money 

Tobias Beckett, Val, Rio Durant, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, all participated in the conspiracy to steal Coaxium from the Imperial train on Vandor. Applying the law of Missouri or the Territory of New Mexico, virtually every scenario contemplated in both codea was violated. Val set explosives on the tracks on a bridge for the train, which would violate the elements of causing an injury to “any rail, tie, switch, frog, bridge or trestle.” The purpose of destroying the railway bridge was to steal one of the train cars by airlifting it off the tracks after cutting it away from the other train cars. These acts were in furtherance of stealing the Coaxium for the Crimson Dawn crime lord Dryden Vos. Furthermore, Imperial Range Troopers were engaged during the train robbery with multiple fatalities. While no one should root for the Empire, the train robbery was not part of a military operation by the Rebellion, but a criminal conspiracy for profit.

All of the actions by Beckett’s crew were the reasons anti-train robbing legislation was passed in the 19th Century. While the train appeared operated automatically with just Ranger Troopers to protect the cargo, there was a shootout with deaths and destruction of the bridge and train. While there is a strong argument that a modern court would not impose the death sentence on a crime without fatalities, that argument is lost once someone dies. 

A defense attorney would have a difficult time defending Beckett’s gang, because arguing it was necessary to rob a train in order to avoid crime lords sending bounty hunters to kill you, begs the question that the underlying action was already a crime. While there could be a interesting question on whether Han had a defense to join Beckett to escape the Empire’s war crimes on Mimban, the issue is legally muddy at best.