As long as judicial systems have existed, there has been a tug-of-war between prosecutors and the defense. Often, the conflict is straight-forward, but some struggles are more complicated.
For example, in the 19th Century as advancements were made in the field of science and psychology, defense experts took to blaming the full moon for an increase in erratic and criminal behavior. This became known as “the full moon or lunar defense.”
In fact, a University of Washington study from 1978, provided ample evidence as to why attorneys “went there” with their defendants. The study concluded that out of 11,613 cases of aggravated assault in a five-year period, a majority took place close to the full moon, while 34,318 crimes in a yearlong period followed suit.
As one might expect, the ensuing years stretched the boundaries of creative legal defenses even further, and those boundaries continue to evolve today. To celebrate the last hundred or so years of outside-the-box thinking, we now give you History’s 16 Most Creative Legal Defenses… And Their Result!
Let’s get started.
1. Lorena Bobbitt and the ‘Irresistible Impulse’
The Case: On June 23, 1993, a couple in Manassas, Virginia, would become household names when Lorena Bobbitt, then-wife of husband John, decided to sever his member while he slept.
Lorena claimed this was in response to her husband raping her earlier that evening. Lucky for John, after Lorena threw the member out, guilt took over and she called 9-1-1. Medical officials were able to reattach it after a 9.5-hour operation.
Outcome of the Defense: Lorena’s defense in the trial was that she endured a history of abuse from John and that the shock of the rape led to a psychological state where she was acting simultaneously in self-defense and temporary insanity.
It was dubbed the “irresistible impulse” defense, and it worked. It took the jury 7.5 hours to find Lorena not guilty due to her distressed psychological condition. The pair became celebrities after the incident and later appeared on The Insider in May 2009.
Image Credit: Redbook
2. Dan White and the ‘Twinkie Defense’
The Case: Dan White and Harvey Milk were San Francisco supervisors in the 1970s. Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, though the falling out he would have with White had more to do with professional differences.
Specifically the fact that White blamed Milk for convincing San Francisco Mayor George Moscone to not reappoint him after he stepped down in 1978 but then had a subsequent change of heart. On November 27, 1978, White stormed City Hall and gunned down Milk and Moscone.
Outcome of the Defense: White’s defense is often misinterpreted as basically “Twinkies made me do it” and became known as the “Twinkie Defense.” What his attorneys actually argued though was that his change in diet, including the consumption of more sugary foods, was symptomatic of an underlying depression.
While it didn’t get him acquitted, he did escape with a voluntary manslaughter conviction, which meant a seven-year prison sentence. He only served five, but would later commit suicide at the age of 39.
The tragic deaths of Milk and Moscone were later dramatized in the Academy Award-winning film Milk.
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons
3. Mohammed Anwar and the ‘Driving Between Wives Defense’
The Case: Mohammed Anwar, a Muslim man in Scotland, was caught going 34 miles over the speed limit and faced a ban on driving privileges. However, as a business owner and, more importantly, a married man, he could not afford to let that happen so he devised an interesting matrimonial defense.
Outcome of the Defense: What makes Anwar’s defense unique? He was married to two women and in order to be a dutiful husband, he needed to be able to drive back and forth from their locations in Glasgow and Motherwell while maintaining his business at Falkirk, Stirlingshire.
While it didn’t get him off the hook for demolishing speed laws, it was an effective enough defense to keep his driving privileges at the cost of a £200 fine and six penalty points on his record.
4. Sandie Craddock and the ‘PMS Defense’
The Case: Sandie Craddock took a common malady of women everywhere, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and applied it in a completely uncommon way as her legal defense after stabbing a co-worker to death in 1980.
Outcome of the Defense: As is often the case with creative legal defenses, they’re not always successful in earning exoneration but they can reduce outcomes in favor of a defendant. Such was the case with Craddock, who was convicted of a much minor charge of manslaughter and forced to take progesterone, according to the CBC.
Image Credit: Time
5. Jan Luedecke and the ‘Sexsomnia Defense’
The Case: Jan Luedecke was a Canadian man, who faced charges for rape in 2005. Luedecke did not deny the sexual episode, nor did he deny that the incident was of a non-consensual nature.
Instead he opted for the “sexsomnia defense.” In other words, he forced himself on the woman while in a state of sleepwalking and didn’t realize that sex had occurred until after she had pushed him away and he found later he was still wearing a condom.
Outcome of the Defense: According to a 2007 Newsday article, Luedecke, who had a history of sleepwalking, was acquitted of the crime.
Image Credit: Medical Daily
6. Steven Steinberg and the ‘Homicidal Somnambulism Defense’
The Case: One night in 1981, a Scottsdale, Arizona, man took a kitchen knife and stabbed his wife 26 times with it. He then admitted to a jury of his peers that he killed her, but like Luedecke the “sexsomniac,” he argued he did so in a state of sleepwalking.
Outcome of the Defense: Since Steinberg had a history of sleepwalking, he was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. However, he was deemed sane by the time the jury handed down that verdict, so he walked away from the case a free man.
As a result of the verdict which caused public outcry, Arizona changed its laws to allow for “guilty but insane” to supersede “temporary insanity.” In other words, had Steinberg been tried under the new model he would have been forced to serve a sentence at a mental institution.
Image Credit: Priceonomics
7. Jonathan Schmitz and the ‘Gay Panic Defense’
The Case: Scott Amedure was a gay man, who died at the age of 32 for no other reason than having a crush on neighbor Jonathan Schmitz.
Amedure went on an episode of The Jenny Jones Show, a daily daytime talk show popular in the 1990s, to reveal his secret. Jones also invited Schmitz, letting him know ahead of time that the admirer could be either a man or woman. Schmitz testified that Jones’ representatives implied the crush was a woman.
After the taping, Amedure and Schmitz went out for a night of drinking that allegedly turned into a sexual episode. A few days after the episode, Schmitz purchased a shotgun, went to Amedure’s trailer, and shot him twice in the chest.
Outcome of the Defense: Schmitz used what has come to be known as the “gay panic defense,” or a form of temporary insanity that turns one violent due to a psychiatric condition known as homosexual panic. It was not enough to get Schmitz off the hook for second degree murder, however. He received a sentence of 25 to 50 years in prison.
Image Credit: MDOC Department of Corrections
8. John Hinckley and the ‘Taxi Driver Defense’
The Case: John Hinckley, Jr., came very close to assassinating newly elected President Ronald Reagan in 1981, but the target could just as easily have been his predecessor, President Jimmy Carter. In fact, he was previously arrested on weapons charges while pursuing Carter.
Hinckley was not ideologically driven; rather his obsession stemmed from the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver and the actress who played its young prostitute, Jodie Foster. Hinckley stalked Foster and sought to impress her by playing out the Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) role. His attorneys would invoke that as his defense when he was arrested shortly after shooting Reagan.
Outcome of the Defense: The “Taxi Driver defense” worked as well as it could have, earning him a “not guilty by reason of insanity” and 34 years-and-counting at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Image Credit: BoingBoing
9. Tonda Lynn Ansley and the ‘Matrix Defense’
The Case: Tonda Lynn Ansley invoked this defense after shooting her landlady in the head in July 2002. Tonda alleged that her victim was part of a conspiracy to brainwash and kill her, according to CNN.
“They commit a lot of crimes in ‘The Matrix,’” Ansley told police officers shortly following her arrest. “That’s where you go to sleep at night and they drug you and take you somewhere else and then they bring you back and put you in bed and, when you wake up, you think that it’s a bad dream.”
Outcome of the Defense: The Matrix defense, like Hinckley’s Taxi Driver, succeeded in getting Ansley placed in a mental health facility rather than prison. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Image Credit: Enquirer
10. Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson, José Merél, Jaron Nabors and the ‘TransPanic Defense’
The Case: Gwen Araujo, birth name Edward Araujo, Jr., was a trans-teenager victimized by four men on the night of October 4, 2002.
Araujo had sexual contact with Magidson and Merél, but reportedly concealed her anatomy so that the men would not know her biological gender. Eventually they discovered the reality through force. After the men struck Araujo with a shovel and strangled her with a rope, she finally died from her injuries.
Outcome of the Defense: The use of the transpanic defense in this case was able to help the men escape hate crime enhancement charges. Two of the men pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter while two were convicted of second degree murder.
Since the incident occurred, there has been a growing movement to ban this type of legal defense as well as its “gay panic” cousin with California being the first state to do so in 2014.
Image Credit: FindAGrave
11. Colin Ferguson and the ‘Black Rage/Computer Chip Defense’
The Case: On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson pulled out a gun in the middle of the Long Island Rail Road in Garden City, New York, and fired into a crowd of dozens. He killed six and injured 19 before heroes Kevin Blum, Mark McEntee, and Mike O’Connor, put a stop to the terror. As newsworthy as that was, Ferguson’s trial would become a media circus.
Outcome of the Defense: Ferguson’s attorneys devised the “Black Rage Defense” in an attempt to get their client off by reason of temporary insanity claiming that he was driven insane by racial prejudice. Would it have worked? No one will ever know since Ferguson fired his legal team in the middle of the proceedings and decided to defend himself.
In the ensuing trial, he would have the opportunity to question his own victims and arresting officers, make claims that he was receiving messages from God, get a defense witness who backed up his claim that the government implanted a computer chip in his brain to control him, and various other bits of chicanery.
But as the old adage says, a man who defends himself has a fool for a client. He is now serving a 315-year sentence at Upstate Correctional Facility in Franklin County, New York.
Image Credit: TheRoot
12. R. Sathis Raj and Sabarish Raj and the ‘Identical Twins Defense’
The Case: R. Sathis Raj and Sabarish Raj were identical twins in Malaysia facing a potential death sentence over trafficking of 166 kilograms of cannabis and 1.7 kilograms of opium, according to The Telegraph.
Outcome of the Defense: Authorities were sure that one of the men were guilty but could not verify which of the two twins were originally arrested and charged. Further complicating the matter was that neither twin was choosing to cooperate leaving open the very real possibility of executing an innocent man.
As a result, the Judge on the case, Zaharah Ibrahim, had no choice but to dismiss the charges, stating, “Although one of them must be called to enter a defense, I can’t be calling the wrong twin. … I also can’t be sending the wrong person to the gallows.”
Image Credit: BabyCentre
13. Keison Wilkins and the ‘Heart Attack Defense’
The Case: Keison Wilkins was arrested and charged with felonious assault. At his 2008 trial, he opted to defend himself. Realizing that was a bad idea, he opted for a desperate course of action: fake a heart attack in the middle of the trial.
Outcome of the Defense: Wilkins was no Redd Foxx when it came to fake heart attacks. According to witnesses at the trial, observers showed little concern as if they realized what he was doing the whole time. (See for yourself here.)
As a precautionary measure, medical personnel checked him out to make sure nothing was wrong but the trial went on without a delay. He is now serving a 42-year sentence.
Image Credit: Freenology
14. Robert Torsney and the ‘Automatism of Penfield Defense’
The Case: New York Police Officer Robert Torsney answered a Thanksgiving Day call in 1976. He and his partner were responding to reports of an armed man in the Cypress Hills housing projects.
Upon arrival, Torsney encountered a group of unarmed teens. One of those individuals was 15-year-old Randolph Evans, whom Torsney inexplicably drew on, firing one round into the youth’s head. He then returned to the patrol car at which point his partner asked him what he’d just done. “I don’t know, Matty,” he said to the officer. “What did I do?”
Outcome of the Defense: Torsney’s defense claimed that he suffered from a condition known as the Automatism of Penfield, an “automatic behavior” named for neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. The defense worked, getting him off with a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. He was institutionalized for two years and earned release in 1978.
Image Credit: University of Virginia
15. Edward Ates and the ‘Too Fat Defense’
The Case: Florida man Edward Ates had a falling out with former son-in-law Paul Duncsak and reportedly drove 21 hours to settle their dispute at the end of a pistol. He shot Duncsak several times at close range, but hoped to beat the rap by pointing to the weight scale.
Outcome of the Defense: Ates was 5’8″ and weighed 300 pounds at the time of the incident. His attorneys argued that he was clearly “too fat” to have made the drive and fired accurately at Duncsak.
Ates’ doctor attempted to help out with his defense as well, stating that running up the stairs of Duncsak’s home “would have taken a toll on a man the size of Ates, likely causing his hands to shake, making firing a gun accurately difficult,” ABC News reported in 2009.
Ultimately the jury didn’t buy it. He was sentenced to life in prison later that year.
Image Credit: CTV News
16. Ethan Couch and the ‘Affluenza Defense’
The Case: June 15, 2013. A SUV disabled on the roadside received help from another vehicle in Burleson, Texas. While the passengers were congregated next to their vehicles, 20-year-old Ethan Couch plowed into them, killing four. Couch was under the influence of alcohol at the time, and was also driving on a restricted license.
The son of wealthy parents, his attorneys argued that he could not be held accountable for his actions because of a condition prevalent in the wealthy known as affluenza. In other words, he was never taught by his parents that actions have consequences; instead he was taught that wealth buys privilege.
Outcome of the Defense: The defense sort of worked. It got Couch sentenced to a costly rehabilitation facility on his parents’ dime along with ten years’ probation. After violating those terms and making for Mexico, he was picked up and placed in the Tarrant County jail. A second probation violation could result in a 40-year prison sentence.
Image Credit: BBC
Here at The Reeves Law Group we know where there is a will, there is a way; and where there is a crime, there is a creative legal defense. Which of these do you believe was the most inventive, and what did you think about their results?
Sound off in the comments section, and while you’re at it, have your say. Which cases would you have included or that we mistakenly left off our list?