The recent “affluenza” case led to outrage over the defense offered in court. Defendant Ethan Couch, a teenage boy, caused the death of four people and injury of a further two in a drunk driving accident, and the defense claimed that his rich, permissive upbringing led to his irresponsible behavior. Instead of the 20-year term the prosecutors sought, he received a judgment of probation and treatment in a rehab facility.
Outrageous defenses in court are nothing new. There’s the God-made-me-do-it defense, the my-evil-twin-did-it defense, and the infamous (and apparently mythical) “Twinkie defense”. They don’t often work. But sometimes, amazingly, they do. Here are five instances where out-there defenses actually worked.
The “I was sleepwalking and didn’t even know I killed anyone!” defense
In a 1981 case in Arizona, Steve Steinberg was accused of killing his wife: he had stabbed her 26 times with a kitchen knife. At first, he told police that intruders had done it. Later, he said that he had been sleepwalking and didn’t remember what had happened. He was acquitted and walked away free. Kenneth James Parks used the same defense in his trial for murdering his mother-in-law and father-in-law in 1987. He was acquitted, and the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision five years later.
The “I had to stab my neighbor 61 times after he came on to me!” defense
Joseph Biedermann was acquitted in 2009 of murdering his neighbor Terrance Michael Hauser, despite the fact that Biedermann had stabbed Hauser 61 times. Biedermann claimed that he passed out on Hauser’s couch after a night of drinking and awoke to Hauser threatening him with a sword and making sexual advances. The jury agreed with his defense attorney that he was defending himself, and he was found not guilty. This case has been cited as a successful example of the “gay panic defense,” a defense that usually doesn’t work.
The “I’m in The Matrix!” defense
Amazingly, this defense – which centers on the premise of The Matrix movies, that most humans are hooked up to a network of computers that are controlling them, and are not aware of true reality – has worked more than once. Tonda Lynn Ansley killed a college professor whom she claimed was conspiring to kill her, and Vadim Mieseges killed and chopped up his landlady for giving off “evil vibes.” Neither were found guilty.
The “My PMS is so bad it makes me kill people!” defense
In 1994, a jury in Liverpool, England found Jan Painter not guilty of the murder of her husband, whom she claimed she killed while in a rage from her PMS. PMS was also successfully used in the 1991 drunk driving trial of Dr. Geraldine Richter.
The “My wife’s infidelity made me (temporarily) crazy!” defense
Criminal insanity as a defense is not unusual – Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy, among many others, tried it – but the first case of temporary insanity was. Daniel Sickles was a general in the Civil War and a well-known politician. After shooting and killing his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key II, then the district attorney of D.C. (and son of composer Francis Scott Key), he pleaded insanity. Not only was he acquitted, but he was lauded for “saving” the women of D.C. from the scoundrel Key.