Defense attorneys and their clients are often wildly creative when it comes to justifying a defendant’s criminal actions, particularly when there is no doubt that the accused was in fact responsible for what happened. Among the strangest legal defenses are these:
Dan White and the Twinkies defense. In 1978, San Francisco city supervisor Dan White, angry at Mayor George Mosconi and supervisor Harvey Milk, shot both of them and then argued that his actions were caused by him consuming too many sugary foods, which exacerbated his underlying depression and led to him committing a double murder during a sugar rage.
In 1980, Sandie Craddock stabbed a coworker to death and then blamed it on premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The PMS defense did not result in her exoneration, but she was convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter instead of murder. In 1994, Britain Jan Painter used the same defense to excuse the killing of her husband, whom she claimed she killed while in a PMS-induced rage. That time the PMS defense worked, and she was acquitted.
A Canadian man was tried for rape and claimed in court that he had been sleepwalking at the time and was not aware of the assault until later when he discovered that he was wearing a condom. Bizarrely, he was acquitted in court. Another Canadian, Kenneth Parks, murdered his mother-in-law and father-in-law in 1987 and was acquitted. In 1981, Arizona man Steve Steinberg was arrested for killing his wife after he stabbed her twenty-six times. He claimed he was sleepwalking during the incident and was acquitted. Apparently, the sleepwalking defense is a good one.
In 2013, 16-year-old Ethan Couch crashed his pickup into an SUV parked alongside the road and killed four people. He as under the influence of alcohol when the crash occurred and had a restricted license. The son of wealthy parents, his lawyers argued in court that he should not be held accountable for the incident because his parents had never taught him that his actions would have consequences. This became known as the affluenza defense, and it worked. Instead of being imprisoned for vehicular homicide while under the influence, he received ten years’ probation and then violated the terms in 2015 by fleeing to Mexico with his mother. When he was returned to the United States, he served two years in prison and received a much lengthier probation period.
Most recently, Sidney Powell, one of Donald Trump’s attorney as he was trying to overturn the 2020 election, used a novel legal defense. She is facing a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems for her part in claiming that Dominion’s voting machines fraudulently changed votes for Donald Trump into votes for Joe Biden, thus resulting in Trump’s defeat. To excuse her actions, Powell claimed that her statements were merely opinions and that, “Reasonable people would not accept such statements as true but view them only as claims that await testing by the courts through the adversary process.” Sure, Sidney. Someone has labelled this the “Fox News” defense—that one’s lies don’t count because reasonable people would know they are lies.