How a bizarre 1970s Arctic killing could help set a legal precedent for space murder

In space, no one can hear you scream. And even if they could, that might not be admissible in court, since there's no easy way to determine who or what has legal jurisdiction beyond our terrestrial body. Hell, even the laws for what goes on international waters can be a little loose. So how are we supposed to carve up the borderless cosmos to figure out who gets to make the laws where?

Sam Kean at Slate has one proposal: using the 1970 Arctic murder of Bennie Lightsy on Fletcher's Island, also known as "T3," as a basis. The basic gist of what would come to be known as State v. Escamilla was that Mario Escamilla, a worker at the Arctic base, had gotten fed up with another colleague, Donald "Porky" Leavitt, who had allegedly stolen some of his booze. Interpersonal squabbles are bound to happen, especially when you're living and working in close-quartered isolation with someone. But when Escamilla went to get his revenge, he found Leavitt drinking with Bennie Lightsy, a meteorological tech and Leavitt's supervisor. A struggle ensued, and a gun went off, and Lightsy was killed.

This complicated personnel tragedy was even more legally complicated. As Kean explains:

T-3 was technically run by the U.S. Air Force, but Escamilla was a civilian, so they couldn't court-martial him. The nearest land mass was Canada, but T-3 lay well outside Canada's territorial waters, so it had no jurisdiction there. Perhaps the United States could have claimed the ice island—similar to the many uninhabited "Guano Islands" full of rich, natural fertilizer that the U.S. government seized during the 1800s. But unlike the Guano Islands, T-3 was temporary—it would melt away in the 1980s—so under international law, no nation could claim it. Perhaps the law of the sea applied? After all, T-3 was in some sense the literal high seas, being high-latitude frozen seawater. Except, the law of the sea applies only to navigable areas, and T-3 wasn't navigable.

In sum, T-3 was neither fish nor fowl. "Murder in Legal Limbo," Time magazine called the case. Some legal scholars seriously questioned whether any nation had the right to try Escamilla. As one noted, "It may shock the layman to learn that there may be parts of the world in which possible murders may go untried."

The Escamilla case gets messier from there, which Kean also explains, before connecting this back to outer space:

The no man's land of T-3 seems a better analogue, legally, to the near-vacuum of judicial oversight in space.

About the only existing law governing space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. But the treaty focuses almost entirely on what nation-states can and cannot do (e.g., deploy nuclear bombs, seize celestial bodies). It's virtually silent on what private companies or individuals can do—which suddenly seems like a glaring loophole given the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, which recently transported its first astronauts to the International Space Station. These private vessels are far murkier in a legal sense.

To be sure, a clause in the Outer Space Treaty does require nations to monitor their own citizens in space, which works fine when astronauts are few. But when hundreds or thousands of people reach orbit, that will become increasingly untenable. And so far, most crimes in remote places like T-3 have involved the citizens of one country alone (e.g., one Russian attacking another).

Kean ultimately presents a valid argument for using the T3 killing as a starting point for figuring out the inevitable international and intergalactic legal conundrums that will arise. But he also recognizes: it's never going to be a perfect system (and to bring it back to Alien, that's surely something that the lawyers for a corporation like Weyland-Yutani would be counting on).

How Not to Deal With Murder in Space [Sam Kean / Slate]

The Ice Island Murde‪r‬ [Disappearing Spoon: a science history podcast by Sam Kean]

Image via YouTube