Ain’t My Fault

12.12.13

Beyond ‘Affluenza’: Four More Unusual Defense Strategies

A Texas teen has avoided jail time—despite killing four people with his pickup truck—by basically arguing he was too rich to know better. More of defense attorneys’ greatest hits.

North Texas teen Ethan Couch was facing up to 20 years in prison for killing four pedestrians and injuring several others in his speeding truck while drunk and on Valium. Instead, State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him to a decade of probation—thanks in part to defense witness Gary Miller, a psychologist who argued the 16-year-old suffered from “affluenza,” a condition of being given whatever he wanted from his rich parents without facing consequences. Miller claimed the boy was incapable of taking responsibility for the deaths because of his history with parents who indulged him with “freedoms no young person should have.”

Internet outrage over the sentencing was swift. “Straight probation! He doesn’t even have to pick up trash! Nothing! Not one night in jail!” said Headline News’s queen of outrage Nancy Grace, echoing the sentiment of thousands of others on Twitter.

But Couch isn’t the first to try and escape responsibility with a creative defense. From the Twinkie to Crocodile Dundee, if there’s something else to take the blame, people have tried it.

The “Twinkie Defense”

After former San Francisco supervisor Dan White shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk, he was handed a lesser sentence of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. Testimony from psychiatrist Dr. Martin Blinder claimed “a major mental illness”—untreated depression—was what “drove him ‘round the bend,” as evidenced by his change from eating well to a junk food diet. Since then, the phrase “twinkie defense” has come to connote any far-fetched legal defense.

Automatism of Penfield

White New York City police officer Robert Torsney was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the death of 15-year-old Randolph Evans on Thanksgiving Day 1976. As Torsney left a housing project, Evans, who was black, approached and paused to speak; Torsney pulled his gun and shot the boy in the head point-blank. Though Torsney’s attorneys argued self-defense, testimony from Dr. Daniel Schwartz convinced a jury that the officer suffered from “automatism of Penfield,” a rare epileptic condition that caused the officer to lose control of his body and shoot. He was sent to a psychiatric facility.

The Crocodile Dundee Defense

Paul J. Dunn’s defense in the 1987 shooting, stabbing, and drowning death of his pregnant wife was creative, if not successful. Dunn’s attorney called as an expert witness psychiatrist Leonard Friedman to bolster his case that the Massachusetts man was insane at the time, and influenced by the movie Crocodile Dundee to use a knife like the one in the film.  The jury was unconvinced and convicted Dunn of first-degree murder.

Urban Fear Syndrome

When a group of boys shattered Nathaniel Hurt’s car windshield in Baltimore in 1994, the 62-year-old reacted with a heavy hand. He fired his gun, striking and killing 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. In opening arguments, Hurt’s lawyer claimed that Hurt was a victim of “urban fear syndrome.” Because of his advanced age and the high crime area, the thinking went, he was more fearful than most and unable to distinguish a real threat from a perceived one. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.