Improbable Legal Defenses that Worked

Still fresh in the outraged mind of the public, the “affluenza” defense that got a rich teenager off multiple homicide charges is just another example of some flaws in the American jury system.

Ethan Couch was 16 years old when he plowed through a stalled vehicle, killing four people and injuring two of his own passengers. He had been impaired with alcohol (testing 0.24 for blood alcohol content) and diazepam at the time of the incident. Texas is particularly harsh on driving while intoxicated (DWI) and normally the teenager would have been facing multiple second degree felony charges, each count good for 20 years in prison. Instead, he mounted the “affluenza” defense which argued that he had been so spoiled by his rich parents that he was unable to appreciate the consequences of his actions, and got probation and private rehab instead.

A similar improbably defense that worked is the Twinkie defense, in which a defendant claimed that he had been so hopped up on sugar that he was unable to control himself when he killed two people. Despite the fact that Dan White had a very good motive for murdering San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk (he wanted his job back) his defense got him a conviction for voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

Neither the Twinkie defense nor affluenza that so outraged the thinking public is recognized as legitimate diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, but the fact is these trials set a dangerous precedent. It sends the signal that criminals can get away with anything if they can get enough experts to say they were crazy at the time they committed a crime. Now that’s crazy…

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