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Kangaroo Court

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"The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with."

A Kangaroo Court is a sham legal proceeding or trial that denies due process and fairness in the name of expediency and authoritarian rule, undertaken usually by orders from the Powers That Be, with the express purpose of punishing a particular individual regardless of whether he or she actually broke the law, in a specific way as to make it more difficult to prove that it was a gratuitous act of authoritarianism and to give the sadistic authorities a chance to gloat at the defendant's misery.

In a proper court of law, what happens is that there is a dispute between two different parties—in civil courts it's between individuals or corporations, in criminal courts it's individuals versus the State—and this dispute must be settled according to standing law in an orderly and structured way. A court requires a minimum of three parties: a plaintiff complaining about an injury that was done to themself (in criminal courts the plaintiff is the State or the country as a whole, represented by a prosecutor or attorney general); a defendant, who is the person being accused of wrongdoing; and the judge (and jury, if the country uses it), whose job is to evaluate the evidence and testimonials presented by both parties, determine whether the plaintiff's complaint is true, and, if the injury was actually done, determine how the defendant should pay for their wrongdoings. A trial, therefore, is inherently a non-deterministic procedure with an unknown outcome; theoretically, even the most cynical and shameless Serial Killer can end up being cleared from all charges if the evidence for them is solid enough. In addition, most trial processes throughout the world have been painstakingly designed to respect at all times the defendant's human rights, by always giving even the most horrible and unforgivable offenders a chance to defend themselves, always listening to everyone's claims, and by applying special rules such as always providing a state-sponsored lawyer if the defendant can't hire their own, or assuming the defendant's innocence until proven guilty.


In a corrupt state, none of this happens. What happens instead is that a powerful person—the President, the Glorious Leader, a sufficiently powerful Corrupt Politician, a person with enough wealth and political connections, a secret authority operating from the shadows, or maybe the people who just overthrew the previous government and are now sending everyone to jail—wants to punish or get rid of someone in particular, has managed to arrest or kidnap that person, and has a corrupt law enforcement system completely ready to lock that person into jail; if the authority wants to, they can send the victim to death row, or have them commit suicide by three gunshots to the back of the neck. But doing so would immediately raise suspicions among the population that this person was actually innocent and wrongfully convicted, which would greatly undermine the legitimacy of the powers that be, and potentially end up with an armed revolution if the convicted person was sufficiently popular. Also, if the dictator or the people in charge are sadistic enough, they may not find it enough to just punish someone; they're going to want to taste every single one of the victim's tears, gloat at their misery, and laugh in their face as they are sent to their inevitable doom.


Enter the Kangaroo Court: the defendant technically is given a trial, but the trial is actually just a show, and going through the motions of procedure is only done to make it "official"; unlike a proper trial, which inherently has an unknown outcome, this fake trial's outcome has already been decided, and the defendant will be punished, no matter what happens or how the trial develops. The defendant will likely be allowed no defense, nor be allowed to call witnesses, present evidence or make objections. If they are allowed, they will be summarily overruled by the Hanging Judge that usually presides over the trial in question. Especially nasty versions may even slap the accused with "contempt of court" penalties for even trying to mount a defense. If the trial results in a death sentence, some people will use the term "judicial murder" to describe it.

An alternate version is the Reverse Kangaroo Court, in which the defendant will be judged innocent and cleared from one or more charges. In this case, the accused person is let off by a court biased in their favor. This may be due to them having connections, the alleged victim(s) being unpopular or prejudiced against, bribery/threats that gain them acquittal or dismissal of the charge(s), or maybe the defendant is a government official in a corrupt jurisdiction that feigns having a due procedure to address abuses of authority but in reality has the entire system rigged in favor of the rulers and bureaucrats.

This one is unfortunately Truth in Television, especially in countries ruled by dictators, who are fond of putting people through "show trials" as a prelude to execution; the victims are usually dissidents, people designated by the authorities as enemies, or random people used as scapegoats to prominently declare a high profile crime as solved. The etymology is unknown, though many (mostly wrong) suggestions have been made.

Very rarely, the reaction to these can in fact be Kick the Son of a Bitch, if the court's victim is a particularly despicable villain. Seeing them getting their just desserts at the hands of the corrupt system they themselves may have set up can be incredibly therapeutic both for the protagonists and the audience.

Compare Joker Jury (which a Kangaroo Court may well have), Jury of the Damned, Trial of the Mystical Jury, and Decoy Trial. If it's the litigants who are making a mockery of the court system rather than those running the proceedings, it's a Courtroom Antic. Not descriptive of Australia's legal system, though many confuse it with Sentenced to Down Under. If the Kangaroo Court occurs in the military, it's called a Drumhead Court-Martial. The name comes from the hasty and haphazard nature of this type of justice; instead of a proper table and/or notes, a makeshift board or writing medium, such as a drumhead, can be used, especially on the battlefield. The inevitable outcome is the defendant getting Shot at Dawn.

See also The Scapegoat, Guilty Until Someone Else Is Guilty, and Miscarriage of Justice. Not to be confused with Decadent Court, which is about a corrupt royal court, although naturally they have been known to overlap.


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    Films — Animated 
  • Alice's trial in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, as well as the trial of the Knave of Hearts in the original book. The Queen of Hearts, of course, just wants to behead Alice right away, but the King of Hearts advises she should get a trial first. It begins with the sentence and works backward to conviction from there.
    Queen: (to Alice) Are you ready for your sentence?
    Alice: Sentence? But there must be a verdict first.
    Queen: Sentence first, verdict afterwards!
    Alice: But that just isn't the way!
    Queen: (roaring) ALL WAYS ARE--
    Alice: (hastily) Your ways, Your Majesty. (curtsies to her)
  • Batman: The Killing Joke has a scene where Commissioner Gordon is brought into a room designed to look like a courtroom. The jury box is filled with kangaroo statues while the Joker acts as prosecutor.

  • Episode 319 of Mission To Zyxx features "Pump Up the Justice", an in-universe justice reality show where defendants are governed by dramatic reveals and commercial breaks and verdicts are rendered by phone-in audience voting.
  • In the fifth episode of DuckTales podcast This Duckburg Life, "The Framing of Flintheart Glomgold", Glomgold is quickly found guilty because everyone in Duckburg automatically assumed—knowing him—that he was responsible for dropping leopard sharks on Scrooge's new water park. No one, not even his own lawyer, would try to defend him. When he calls it a kangaroo court, the judge tells him it's a duck court and the kangaroo one is two doors away.
  • In the first season finale of Wooden Overcoats, Rudyard is put on trial for the alleged murder of Eric Chapman. Eric's popularity within the town, Rudyard's unpopularity, a boatload of circumstantial evidence, and the town's general stupidity means that everyone (except Antigone and Georgie) is convinced Rudyard is guilty, and doesn't see the point in giving him a fair chance to prove otherwise. His "defense attorney" openly believes he did it, and is asked to "just go through the motions." Rudyard also isn't allowed to speak for himself, nor is he allowed any time to prepare a defense — he's arrested and dragged straight into the courtroom. Even when Georgie attempts to vouch for him, saying she's the last person to see Eric, no one believes her, since her story (which happens to be the truth) rides on the fact that she wasn't interested in him, which no one else in town can fathom. Rudyard very quickly resigns himself to his fate.
    Rudyard: I'll just show myself to my cell, then.

  • One of the sketches from the Monty Python radio programme was a man being put on trial in an utterly bizarre court— the judge cares more about catching his train than the trial, the court reporter is Ambiguously Gay, the Crown's lawyer is sleeping with the defense attorney's wife, and the jury is made up of Pepperpots who are very vocal in their impartiality. The defendant ends up stabbing himself in the back out of frustration.
  • Bleak Expectations has one in the final episode of Series 1, where Pip is accused of stealing the bin design from American Harlan J. Trashcan. Judge Hardthrasher blames Pip for killing his four brothers and sister, he personally hangs Pip's lawyer because his name is too long and he freezes Pip's financial assets so he can't hire another lawyer. Trashcan is obviously Benevolent in disguise, showing the evidence of a newspaper with the ink still wet, and Hardthrasher even calls him Mr Benevolent. When he finds Pip guilty after saying this verdict is in no way caused by his sibling's death, he says 'Yes! Got him!' He sentences him to death deciding the verdict himself under the accordance 'Innocent until proven dead.'

  • The Sanhedrin (high court of ancient Judea) that tries Jesus in The Four Gospels. Not only do the judges violate every single Jewish law governing trials, but they put on clearly perjured witnesses to convict him. The conduct of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who approves his death sentence (the Romans required it) also counts, as even he acknowledges that no Roman (or Jewish) laws were broken by Jesus. Roman magistrates have the power to have non-Romans crucified at will, however, making the whole Roman "justice" system essentially this for them. Trials of Roman citizens often go this way, as the magistrate is free to admit or ignore any evidence they please. Later on Paul, a Roman citizen, is given a trial, but the outcome isn't in doubt. The only real privilege they have is that citizens can't be crucified (and the trial needs to be in Rome). Paul is put under house arrest and later beheaded, while they crucify non-citizen Peter (upside down, as he doesn't want it to resemble Jesus' death).
    • Jesus' trial in front of Pilate is a subtle Double Subversion: his question of "Are you the King of the Jews?" was actually him asking Jesus how did he plea, so that when Jesus answered "no" he'd be able to throw the entire proceedings out for lack of evidence, but when he instead got a sarcastic "You have said so." he got the equivalent of no plea at all, which in Roman law is the same as a guilty plea.
    • According to the apocryphal "Acts of Peter" and "Acts of Peter and Paul", Peter and Paul are actually rightly executed for their crime: Simon Magus had been having demons support him as he was flying in public to prove himself a god only for Peter to exorcise the demon and make him fall to his death, something that under Roman law counts as using magic to cause harm and is punished by death, thus giving plenty of witnesses to have Peter executed for a capital crime and Paul as an accomplice. Still counts for this trope, as Nero didn't even bother with a trial, he just ordered Peter executed on the witnesses' report ("Acts of Peter") or ordered them both executed for making Simon Magus fall in his presence.
  • In the Old Testament, Naboth the Jezreelite was given a sham trial by order of Queen Jezebel who had false witnesses accusing him of cursing both God and the king and then having him executed soon afterward so that her husband King Ahab could legally own Naboth's vineyard.

  • At least two controversial and unauthorized cases happened in Dino Attack RPG:
    • Elite Agent Rotor arrested and threatened to execute an entire helicopter crew because the pilot disobeyed his orders. He was almost arrested but a mutant dinosaur rampage allowed him to get off scot-free.
    • In an homage to Blackadder, Elite Agent French Fries organized an over-the-top trial in which he planned to execute Rotor and George for conflicting charges. note  Let's just say it didn't go over well with the rest of the team.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A hallmark of Inquisitor courts of the Imperium in Warhammer 40,000. Assuming the accused managed to avoid being killed already by over-eager Inquisitors seeking out any hint of heresy (which in and of itself is already a miracle 99% of the time), actually being brought to a trial means facing down a bunch of Imperial zealots who in most cases have probably already made up their mind about the guilt (real or imagined) of the defendant in question. Some, like Lord Inquisitor Fyodor Karamazov, take this to the extreme to the point even other Inquisitors balk in shock, such as killing an innocent priest who managed to take back his planet for the Imperium...under the impression that there was even a hint of Chaos corruption about him and not allowing any members of the Ecclesiarchy to actually come and test him until after he was long since dead. His quote says it best.
    "There is no such thing as a plea of innocence in my court, a plea of innocence is guilty of wasting my time. Guilty."
    • Depending on the Commissar, a Commissarial tribunal can be just as bad, albeit on a more limited scope than what an Inquisitor is capable of.
  • Exalted: The Roseblack is under advisement to find excuses to extend her campaign in the Threshold as long as possible, as her enemies in the Deliberative are planning to have her executed on trumped up charges of treason the moment she sets foot back on the Blessed Isle (the fact that she actually is planning to commit treason is merely because she objects to this kind of thing being able to fly).
  • In Quest Gamer:
    • Inverted in their proposed "Kangaroo Court" variant of Magic: The Gathering, in which players can try to apply some semblance of real-world logic to the game; for example, using the Pacify card on an Angry Mob destroys it outright, since the mob is no longer angry.
    • The card Twisted Justice is styled after creating such a situation, and the flavor text is from the perspective of the judge as he's being manipulated to send an innocent man to his death.
  • Nobilis: the Locust Court, during the first two editions, which existed mainly to a) permit Lord Entropy to arbitrarily punish anyone he wanted, and b) see who could afford the biggest bribe for Meon. 3e dialled it back a bit, making the Court as just as any other court that tries people for breaking laws one guy made up.
  • The Mayfair Batman RPG had a sample adventure where Joker puts Batman on trial for supposedly killing a man during one of their fights. It's clearly one of these (complete with a "jury of his peers" — twelve mannequins in Batman costumes), but unless the players can prove Batman's innocence, he'll willingly turn himself over to the police.
  • In Stars Without Number, the supplements Skyward Steel and Starvation Cheap discuss military justice. In general, don't ask for a court-martial. It's not supposed to be fair, because any effective military justice system prioritizes maintaining order and the chain of command over the rights of individual soldiers. Just take your summary administrative punishment with good grace.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know where you live. And if you give a damn about your families' well-being, you will vote to convict the defendant.


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Alternative Title(s): Show Trial


Lavrentiy Beria's Trial

After being removed from his post in 1953, senior Politburo member Lavrentiy Beria is found guilty of treason against the Soviet Union in a sham trial and executed.

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