Top 10 Crazy Legal Defenses That Actually Worked
Being a criminal defense attorney can be hard. In addition to navigating a system designed to fail our clients, we often have only bad facts to work with. And when “he didn’t do it!” isn’t a viable defense, the world’s defenders have to get creative.
10Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
In 2013, Texas teenager Ethan Couch—who at the time was wasted, speeding, and driving illegally on a restricted license—plowed into a group of people with his truck. Four died; nine were injured. At trial, Couch’s attorneys blamed “affluenza,” a portmanteau of “affluent” and “influenza,” for Couch’s actions. According to Couch’s lawyers, his wealth prevented him from appreciating the consequences of his actions. Perhaps the legal team was inspired by Clarence Darrow, who used the same strategy in the famous Leopold and Loeb case.
Apparently, Couch’s attorneys were convincing. Though Couch was ultimately convicted of four counts of intoxication manslaughter, a Texas judge passed up the state’s recommendation of 20 years in prison and instead sentenced Couch to probation and rehab. Couch carried out the bulk of his sentence at a facility in Newport Beach, California, which offered horseback riding, karate, and cooking classes. For these luxuries, his parents paid $450,000 per year. Money may have caused problems in Couch’s life, but it also saved him from going to prison.
9The Killer Sleepwalker
Some people talk in their sleep, some people walk in their sleep. Some people even kill in their sleep. Take Steven Steinberg, who fatally stabbed his wife 26 times while sleepwalking. Steinberg, who had a history of sleep disturbances, claimed no memory of the events. At trial, Steinberg’s attorney Bob Hirsh advanced the theory that Steinberg’s wife—a woman Hirsh dubbed a “Jewish American Princess”—had driven Steinberg temporarily insane, forcing him into intermittent dissociative states. Apparently it was during one of these states, akin to sleepwalking, that Steinberg killed his wife. Because Steinberg was deemed sane upon acquittal, he walked out of the courtroom a free man.
There’s also Kenneth Parks. In 1986, Parks drove 15 miles to his in-laws’ home in the dead of night. He let himself in with a key. Once inside, Parks stabbed and beat his mother-in-law, Barbara Woods, to death. His attack was so violent that it left him with a severed tendon. Next, Parks choked his father-in-law, who survived, until he passed out. Once Parks was finished, he got back in his car and drove straight to the police station. There he announced, “I think I have just killed two people.” Parks reportedly appeared confused.
At trial, Parks’s attorney argued that Parks was sleepwalking during the killing of his mother-in-law. The judge was convinced, and found Parks not guilty. Interestingly, since the verdict established that Parks was asleep when he killed his mother-in-law, the prosecution had to change their strategy when it came to proving the attempted murder of Parks’s father-in-law. They landed on the theory that Parks woke up after he killed his mother-in-law, and thus was awake when he attacked his father-in-law.
Jonathan Schmitz had a secret admirer. He agreed to meet that person on The Jenny Jones Show, in front of a studio audience of hundreds. When Schmitz walked out onto the stage, he saw an attractive woman. Assuming she was his secret admirer, Schmitz tried to kiss her, playing it up for the cameras. But a producer quickly interjected, “Oh, no, no, no, she’s not your secret admirer.” And there, on the stage, was Scott Amedure. “This is,” the producer grinned, gesturing at Amedure. There was a twist: This show was about men who had secret crushes on other men.
Schmitz was stunned. The producers had specifically told him his admirer was a woman. They had even planted one onstage. The woman was Donna Riley, who lived at Schmitz’s apartment complex and had introduced him to Amedure. Though Schmitz felt foolish, he didn’t want to lose his cool on television. He played along, even laughing when Amedure recounted a fantasy involving strawberries, whipped cream, champagne, and the two of them.
But Schmitz couldn’t contain his rage. A few days after the taping, he found a note in front of his apartment that read, “John, if you want it off, you have to ask me. It takes a special tool. Guess who.” Schmitz, who assumed Amedure left the note, became incensed. Schmitz bought some bullets and a gun, which he loaded. He drove to Amedure’s house and asked him if he left the note. When Amedure said yes, Schmitz shot and killed Amedure.
At trial, Schmitz didn’t contest that he killed Amedure. Instead, he argued that at the time, he was suffering from diminished capacity from the embarrassment he suffered on the Jenny Jones show, coupled with the shock over finding that note. Despite significant evidence of deliberation and premeditation, which is required for a finding of first-degree murder, a jury bought Schmitz’s gay panic defense and found him guilty of only second-degree murder.
A lot has changed since 1995. Recently, California has banned the gay panic defense. The American Bar Association suggests other states follow suit, and the LGBT Bar is leading the effort.
A woman fell asleep at a Toronto house party. When she woke up, a man she hardly knew was raping her. “Who the hell are you and what are you doing?” she reportedly demanded. The man on top of her, Jan Luedecke, later claimed he had no idea what he was doing until he woke up in the bathroom and saw that he was wearing a condom.
Apparently, this was nothing new for Luedecke. At his trial, a doctor testified that Luedecke had a history of sleep sex, which was aggravated by the more than 16 alcoholic drinks he had that night, and the magic mushrooms he consumed the day before. Luedecke was ultimately acquitted of sexual assault. The state appealed, but Luedecke prevailed.
6My Bust Is Too Big!
Serena Kozakura, a bikini model, was sentenced to a whopping 14 months in prison for trespassing and willful destruction of property. According to prosecutors, Kozakura kicked a hole in her boyfriend’s apartment and climbed through it after she discovered him cheating. He had kicked Kozakura out, but she wasn’t done arguing.
Nor was Kozakura willing to accept the judge’s guilty verdict. She appealed, claiming it was impossible for her 40-inch bust to fit through the hole in the door, which was only 28.3 by 8.7 inches. Despite eyewitness testimony claiming Kozakura was indeed the perpetrator, the Tokyo High Court bought Kozakura’s defense. “It was definitely my breasts that won for me today,” Kozahura remarked after her successful appeal.
During her trial for murder, Jan Painter admitted to stabbing her husband. Yet a Liverpool jury acquitted Painter of all charges after her defense team claimed she was suffering from severe PMS at the time. Painter testified that her husband had taken money from her purse without asking, which upset her—especially because it was “that time of the month.”
The PMS defense has also succeeded in the United States. In the early 1990s, a Virginia woman convinced the presiding judge to acquit her of drunk driving after her attorney argued it was PMS, not intoxication, that caused her unpredictable behavior. A state trooper pulled Geraldine Richter over after her car allegedly straddled the centerline. Noting the strong odor of alcohol on her breath, the trooper asked Richter how much she’d had to drink. She told him it was none of his damn business. After he pulled Richter out of the car to perform field sobriety tests, Richter tried to kick him in the groin. She reportedly screamed, “I’m a doctor—I hope you get shot and come into my hospital so I can refuse to treat you!” Later, at the station, Richter drop-kicked the Breathalyzer table rather than submit to a test. Ultimately, she blew a 0.13.
At trial, Richter’s attorney, David Sher, employed an expert witnesses to testify about how PMS can affect behavior. While his defense—or, more accurately, mitigation—succeeded, Sher did make some questionable statements about the case. Notably, Sher suggested his client’s behavior turned erratic only once the trooper threatened to take Richter’s children, who were in the car with her. Sher said: “When they put her children in jeopardy, she became very upset.” He continued, “She was premenstrual and she became like a lioness to protect her children.”
4The Matrix Defense
In 2002, Tonda Lynn Ansley shot and killed her landlord, Sherry Lee Corbett. She pulled the trigger three times. It was broad daylight, and there were several witnesses. Still, Ansley didn’t think she was going to go down for the crime. In fact, she wasn’t even sure a crime had occurred.
In 1999, Ansley had seen The Matrix, and it changed her life. Ansley became convinced she was living inside of the Matrix. She also believed that, like Neo, it was her duty to rebel against it. In Ansley’s head, Corbett was one of the enemies. So was her husband, and police later learned Ansley planned to kill him, too.
Moments after her arrest, Ansley told police officers, “I started having dreams I found out aren’t really dreams.” In The Matrix, Neo believes an initial experience of his with The Matrix is a dream. Ansley tried to explain, “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 it’s a bad dream.” A judge approved Ansley’s insanity plea on May 13, 2003—right as The Matrix Reloaded was premiering in theaters. Even the prosecutor was convinced Ansley wasn’t fully responsible for her actions. He told a reporter, “In [Ansley’s] warped perception,” the movie had a role in the killing. “But I think’s only because she was suffering from a mental illness.”
For R. Sathis Raj and his identical twin brother, Sabarish Raj, this wasn’t a defense but a way to avoid prosecution altogether.
In 2003, one of the twins was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. In Malaysia, where the alleged crime occurred, this charge was punishable by death. But during the first twin’s arrest, the second twin showed up to the scene.
Though only one twin allegedly had the drugs, by the time the case got to court, the police were unable to identify the twin they arrested. In fact, it appeared no one could tell them apart. Given that the two men were identical, all the way down to their DNA, the judge refused to hear the case. Apparently, she wouldn’t risk sentencing an innocent man to die. Once the judge dismissed the case, the twins wept and embraced.
Heather Specyalski was charged with the manslaughter of her boyfriend, Neil Esposito, a prominent Republican campaign manager. Esposito died after his Mercedes-Benz crashed. Prosecutors claimed Specyalski had been driving the car. Her defense? She couldn’t have been driving the car, because she was giving Esposito oral sex at the time of the accident. Over the government’s objections, the presiding judge, Judge Robert L. Holzberg allowed Specyalski to proceed with the defense, stating, “A defendant has a right to offer a defense no matter how outlandish, silly or unbelievable one might think it will be.” He added, “No one ever told me in law school that we’d be having these kinds of conversations in open court.” At trial, paramedics testified that Esposito’s body was found with his pants down. Specyalski was acquitted of all charges.
Specyalski had another brush with the law in 2008, when she was charged with manslaughter for the death of her son, Brandon. Brandon died of an overdose; according to prosecutors, Specyalski knew her son consumed huge quantities of alcohol and morphine yet didn’t get medical help until it was too late. Specyalski was ultimately acquitted a second time.
Mohammed Anwar, of Glasgow, was on his way home from work at his restaurant when he was caught driving more than twice the speed limit. According to police, Anwar was zipping down the street at 64 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone. Though it was only a traffic offense, Anwar could have lost his license.
Anwar pleaded guilty to speeding but begged the Court to spare his license. See, Anwar had two wives under Islamic law. His attorney, Paul Nicholson, argued that without his license, Anwar would be unable to juggle the two wives, as one lived in Motherwell and the other in Glasgow. Anwar spent alternating nights with the wives, which he would not be able to do without his license. The Court allowed Anwar to keep his license, instead electing to fine him 200 dollars and imposing six points on his license. While bigamy is illegal under British law, Islamic law expressly permits it.
Marie Peale is a public defender in the Washington Metro area. Her professional interests include indigent defense and prisoners’ rights. When Marie isn’t working, she enjoys photographing food, hanging out with her rescue animals, and reading and watching thrillers.