Legally Speaking: Some Defenses That Worked, and a Few That Didn't

John G. Browning Jul. 19, 2011, 4:57am

In previous "Legally Speaking" columns, I've written about some rather creative defenses that defendants and their lawyers have concocted—with varying degrees of success.

From the accused tax evader who pleaded "fear of filing" syndrome to the IRS, to the murder defendant who blamed it all on "caffeine intoxication," I thought I'd heard it all; that is, until now.

It seems that the defenses or excuses people will come up with in an attempt to avoid guilt are limited only by their imagination. Here are a few new ones.

The "God Told Me To" Defense

Earlier this year, Levon Sarkisyan was arrested for breaking and entering a Farmington, Conn., home. He allegedly caused more than $10,000 in property damage, and even showered and dressed in clothes belonging to one of the residents.

Facing charges of burglary and criminal mischief, Sarkisyan claims that a "light from above" appeared, and God told him to commit the burglary. Hopefully, God told him to get a good lawyer, too.

"The Boogeyman Did It" Defense

On June 12, police in Naples, Fla., arrived at the scene of a motorcycle accident in the middle of the afternoon. There they found a "highly aggressive and combative" James Scarborough trapped underneath his motorcycle on the side of the road.

Noting his bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and "strong odor of alcohol," police charged him with driving under the influence. Scarborough's explanation for the crash?

According to police officers, Scarborough claimed "the Boogeyman did it." Scarborough has been charged with DUI, driving without a license, obstructing police, and refusing a sobriety test. Perhaps he will call the Boogeyman as an expert witness?

The "I Am Not of This Spiritual Plane and Your Laws Do Not Apply To Me" Defense

In Victoria, Australia, policeman Andrew Logan pulled over Eilish De' Avalon for talking on her cellphone while driving one fine February day in 2010. Little did he know that, seconds later, he'd be hanging on for dear life.

When he asked to see her driver's license, Ms. De' Avalon—a self-styled "pagan priestess"—said she didn't need one, since she was from another world and earthly laws did not apply to her.

She abruptly sped off, as Logan clung to the car. The policeman was dragged for about 200 yards before he managed to grab her car keys as she slowed down to turn a corner.

De' Avalon was taken to an earthly jail before being brought before an earthly judge, one Judge Geoff Chettle. The proclaimed witch not only had injured a police officer (Logan suffered arm and shoulder injuries), but she also had several prior convictions for dangerous driving.

Judge Chettle sentenced her to two months in jail, revoked her driver's license for a year, and imposed a stiff fine. As she was being led away, De' Avalon told the judge "I decline your offer."

Judge Chettle explained that it was "non-negotiable." Next time, Ms. De' Avalon, stick with a broomstick; you'll probably get better mileage anyway.

The "I Can't Leave My House for Trial" Defense

Sixty-two-year-old Colin Watson of Middlesborough, England, is an agoraphobic (a person with a crippling fear of public places). He hasn't left his house in at least six years, and because of his condition (along with a heart ailment and circulatory problems), Watson receives regular benefits under England's welfare system. In fact, he's received the equivalent of nearly $200,000 in just six years, according to published reports.

With few outside expenses, prosecutors say, Watson found a use for his spare cash—he allegedly ran an illegal loan sharking operation out of his house. But when authorities brought criminal charges against him, they ran into a problem: how do you bring a man to trial when psychiatrists say he can't leave the house?

While the judge was skeptical, he called for a professional report into Watson's inability to leave the house and stand trial, and the court even explored the possible use of a video link at the defendant's house in order to conduct a trial.

Ultimately, it was decided that a trial could not occur because of Watson's agoraphobia, and the court had no choice but to find Watson formally not guilty on all charges. Agoraphobics 1, justice system 0.

The "I was Sleepwalking" Defense

The recent trial of a man in Calgary, Canada, for the brutal assault and beating of an escort featured an interesting defense: parasomnia, a mental disorder in which a person commits involuntary acts while sleeping.

Sleepwalking is a subcategory of this disorder, according to mental health professionals, as is "restless leg syndrome" and "night terrors."

The defendant allegedly hit the victim with a baseball bat, choked her until she passed out, and attempted to sexually assault her; when she escaped, he pursued her. According to his defense lawyers, all of this was done while the defendant was asleep.

He claimed to have no memory of the attack, and the judge found the expert testimony backing this up quite credible.

While the defendant wasn't acquitted outright (he'll have to undergo psychiatric assessment and treatment), the judge ruled that he wasn't capable of forming the necessary intent to commit a crime.

In fact, this is not the first use of a "sleepwalking defense" in the courts. It's been employed at least seven times since 1846, and has led to acquittals in three of those cases.

A theory like that gives new meaning to the term "the defense rests."

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