Science Fiction dystopia death penalty interrogation terrorism

Line of Defence

By Stephen Dedman
Nov 28, 2020 · 2,261 words · 9 minutes

Photo by Daniel McCullough via Unsplash.

From the author: It pays to be aware of your rights... and the possible legal penalties for your wrongs.



by Stephen Dedman



            Joe was reading the day’s news from the underground nets while he waited for his lawyer to arrive. He knew that this was illegal, of course, but the conference cubicle was supposed to be private, and after the weeks he’d spent in his cell, privacy was a luxury he couldn’t afford to squander. Not that any of the other inmates had shown much interest in him - the closest thing he’d found to a sympathetic audience for his complaints had been the cleaning robot - but it was good to be surrounded by solid walls and a door, not bars and cameras. He looked at the clock in the corner of the otherwise blank screen on the other side of the table, compared it with the clock on his pocket-book, then began browsing the headlines. There was nothing on any of the sites about his own arrest; the lead story on most of the sites was about a police raid on an amateur theatre group in Berkeley that was rumoured to be rehearsing The Madness of George III. Estimates of the body count from grenade fire varied from one to seven, including a scarf-wearing chemotherapy patient who’d been mistaken for a Muslim. That story hadn’t made either of the official news networks, though one of the sanctioned comedians had made a crack about another play having bombed. Joe wondered whether any of his gag writers ever ended up in jail.  

            The big screen in the tiny cubicle lit up. “I’ve been appointed to defend you. We have half an hour,” the lawyer said. That, Joe knew, was all the public defender’s office was obliged - or permitted, because of its limited budget - to provide in cases like his. Even if his arrest had been public knowledge, it wasn’t glamorous enough to attract other lawyers. “You’re Joseph Kassell?”


            “I’ve reviewed your notes. What are your instructions?”


            The face on the screen showed no emotion, but Joe thought he could hear a hint of exasperation in the voice. “I know this is the first time you’ve been charged as an adult, but we don’t have much time. You’ve been charged with five offences under the Homeland Security Act, including conspiracy to attack the Department and emergency facilities. The bioterrorism offences automatically carry the death penalty. You’re an educated man, and you’ve read the report. How do you intend to plead?”

            “Not guilty!”

            “On what grounds?”

            “That I’m not guilty! I’m not a terrorist! Jesus, I’m not even a biologist!”

            “The report says -“

            “I’m a student! I was mucking around, that’s all! I didn’t kill anybody, and I didn’t intend to!”

            “Did you read the report from University Hospital?”

            “Yes! It said that they spotted it in time and there were no deaths that could be attributed to -” He stopped. “Has somebody died since then? I mean, somebody who -“

            “You’re not being blamed for any deaths,” said the lawyer, neutrally. “Which is fortunate for you, of course, or you could be charged with murder as well as the other offences. But the virus may not have been completely eradicated, and the department was given pre-emptive powers so it could prevent attacks. The prosecution’s case will be that that’s exactly what it did -“

            “I didn’t target the hospital or the department. I didn’t intend to hurt anybody -“

            “Even if the judge accepts that, and is prepared to ignore the endangerment, the cost of the investigation and the raids, and the waste of work-hours, there’s still the charges of planning an attack, possessing items that would be of value to a terrorist -“

            “Anything might be of value to a terrorist! Anything can be a weapon! Are they going to charge, I don’t know, every farmer who has fertilizer in his barn?”

            The lawyer’s expression didn’t change. “A farmer would have reasonable grounds for possessing fertilizer, and you’re not a farmer. You have a record -“

            “As a juvenile!” Joe sat up so suddenly that the crotch of his orange prison-issue jumpsuit dug into his scrotum, causing his voice to rise half an octave. “I stole some fucking computer games and some softcore porn, that’s all, and that was four or five years ago! I thought they destroyed records that old! Jesus!“

            “I’d advise you not to use language like that once you’re in court. True, those offences were minor and your file had been sealed, but the prosecution was able to access it and is using those convictions and your psychoprofile to assess the probability of your re-offending - and it’s extremely high. In a case like this -“

            “I’m not even political!”

            “The department found copies of underground news files in your computers.”

            “Everybody reads those! Everybody literate, anyway.”

            “Whether or not that’s true, it’s not a defence under law. I would also advise you to adjust your attitude before entering the courtroom - unless you want to change your plea?”

            Joe closed his pocket-book, drew a deep breath, and silently counted to ten. “What to? Insanity?”

            “No, that’s already been ruled out. Sorry.”

            “What, then?”

            “If you plead guilty to the bioterrorism charge, the prosecutor may agree to drop the other charges.”

            “I’m not a fucking bio -“ Another deep breath. “I thought a bioterrorism charge carried a mandatory death sentence?”

            The lawyer didn’t bat an eyelid. “It does.”

            Despite himself, Joe began laughing. “So what’s the point of bargaining if I’m dead anyway?”

            “Would you rather die this year, or in a few year’s time? Three. Five. Maybe even ten. Possibly more.”

            Joe stopped laughing, and stared at the screen for a long moment. “You’re bullshitting me. I know the government will save some money by not having a trial, but not enough to justify keeping me alive in jail for another ten years.”

            “That’s not quite correct,” replied the lawyer smoothly. “I could increase the cost of the trial by calling expert witnesses if the judge allowed it, though of course the main issue there is not the financial cost but the security risks. The department prefers that these matters are handled with as little publicity as possible.”

            “I bet.”

            “The cost of imprisoning you may also be lower than you expect. There are so many prisoners on death row in federal prisons that they’ve managed to introduce some economies of scale, as it were. If you plead guilty to the bioterrorism charge, however, you will have a chance to do some useful work which will increase your value, and thus, your life expectancy.”

            “What sort of useful work?”

            “Scientific research.”

            Joe looked interested. “What sort of research?”

            “Testing new drugs, vaccines, protective gear, less-lethal weapons -“

            “Testing…” Joe turned pale. “You mean as a guinea pig?”

            “Experimental subject,” said the lawyer, precisely.

            Joe’s face turned from grey-white to red as he rose from his chair and began yelling. “No fucking way! I want another lawyer. A human one.”

            The lawyer didn’t flinch. “Some people would say that’s a contradiction in terms.”

            “I know my rights. I want another lawyer right fucking now!”

            “If you have an attorney with the appropriate security clearance for such a case, you may call him. If you do not have such an attorney, the court will appoint one for you. Alternatively, you may choose to represent yourself, but should you do so, your only option will be to try to convince the judge that the prosecution has not established your guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I doubt you’ll succeed.”

            “What if I ask for a jury trial?”

            “For a bioterrorism charge? Don’t make me laugh. This is a security matter: no juries are permitted, because of the nature of the evidence. Now sit down. The door is locked; you can’t go anywhere. And your trial begins in nineteen minutes in any case. Hear me out.”

            Joe grabbed the chair and tried to pick it up, with the intention of hurling it at the screen, but found that it was fastened firmly to the floor.

            “Eighteen minutes.”

            Joe leaned on the table, scowling, but didn’t sit down. “So that’s the best you can do? They can still kill me, but they can kill me slowly instead of quickly? Isn’t there still some sort of law against cruel and inhuman punishment?”

            “Yes, but the Supreme Court ruled that this wasn’t cruel and inhuman for people convicted of bioterrorism. They considered it nothing less than just. Make the punishment fit the crime, as the old song says.”

             “I’m not a fucking bioterrorist!”

             The lawyer’s expression didn’t change. “This option is only available to those convicted of bioterrorism to the exclusion of other capital crimes. How do you want to plead?”

            Joe stared at the screen. He hadn’t heard of this ruling, but that was hardly surprising: many of the Supreme Court decisions were classified under the Homeland Security Act. “You mean those who didn’t actually kill anybody?”

            “Precisely. We can’t offer this sort of deal if there’s been any publicity; in cases like that, the need for justice to be seen to have been done is too great -“

            “And nobody wants to miss TV’s Funniest Executions?”

            The lawyer might have smiled fleetingly. Execution by lethal injection was about as exciting as watching the ice caps melt, if you didn’t have any emotional investment in the result - but the public obviously did, because the telecasts were still the highest rating weekly reality show. “However, while it is obviously preferable to prevent such crimes rather than to avenge them, it is also much less dramatic, much less satisfying to the public. Therefore -“

            “You occasionally let one happen, to prevent people becoming complacent?”

            The temperature in the cubicle seemed to drop by at least ten degrees. “I would advise you not to suggest that in court, either, or your chance of getting any sort of deal will be very slim indeed.”

            “How many people have said ‘yes’ to that shitty deal?”

            “One hundred and fourteen,” replied the lawyer, without needing to consult his notes.

            Joe blinked. “And how many are still alive?”

            “Eighty-four. However, all of those who said ‘no’ have already been executed.” He paused for a few seconds, and asked, “Shall I call my colleague and tell him you’ll accept the deal?”

            Joe didn’t reply. He sat down and hunched over the desk, supporting his head with his hands as though it were an unbearable burden. “This is all bullshit,” he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

            “There’s nothing else I can do for you,” said the lawyer. “Your accomplice has already implicated you, pleaded guilty, and accepted the same deal we’re offering you. The judge -”

            “He wasn’t my fucking accomplice!”

            “The judge is extremely unlikely to acquit you when the prosecutor can prove that it was you who actually created the virus. The argument that you didn’t intend it to be released isn’t sufficient mitigation: the prosecutor can argue that you would have done so if not pre-empted by your accomplice. This is why mere possession of the virus and the tools to create it is a capital offence.

             “You only have twelve minutes left, Mr Kassell. If I don’t tell the prosecutor that you’ve accepted the deal, he’ll take it off the table before the trial begins. Shall I call -“

             “How many times do I have to tell you, I’m not a fucking bioterrorist!” Joe moaned, without looking up. “It was a fucking computer virus! I created it to test some new anti-viral software I’d written, to see how well it would cope with an unknown program. I only sent it to Frank to see whether he could rewrite it to get through my system. I didn’t tell him to release it - I told him to be careful not to! I don’t know who he sent it to, but I sure as fuck didn’t tell him to try to infect the Homeland Security Department, or any hospitals!”

            “To take your points in reverse order,” said the lawyer, “your accomplice has already testified that you were aware of his anti-government sympathies and shared them, and thus he did not take your instructions seriously. And because the government can no longer depend on the fallible memories and slow response times of human beings, particularly in military and security matters, an increasing number of decisions are being made by Artificial Intelligences without recourse to input from biologicals -“

            “You mean ‘humans’?”

            The lawyer’s expression didn’t change. “All of these decisions are still being made by humans. AIs in government service are legally human. This is why the Homeland Security Act makes no distinction between computer viruses and other forms of bioterrorism -“

            “Since when?”

            “The precedent -“ The lawyer suddenly fell silent. Joe looked up, and saw that the screen had turned blue, and was blank apart from a text message: Error causing General Protection Fault. Operating System may be corrupted. Please reboot computer. The clock in the corner read 0:00:00.


This story originally appeared in Aurealis #32.