True crime is not always simple. Even the well-documented real-life cases can seem more like the work of fiction, filled with bizarre legal twists that surprise us and verdicts that may disgust us.
What is assured, though, is that as long as humans continue to commit murder and lawyers continue to defend them, defense teams will keep coming up with the wildest legal defense arguments – and some of them will work.
Michael Peterson Believes an Owl Killed His Wife
In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was killed by blunt force trauma to her head. Her husband, writer Michael Peterson, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Peterson’s attorney, T. Lawrence Pollard, had a different theory. He believed that an owl had killed Kathleen Peterson. A feather was found in Kathleen’s hand matching that of an owl, and the lacerations on her face and head matched that of an attack by a large bird. In 2010, Pollard’s theories were made public and several articles were written on this mysterious yet sensible owl defense. However, a few months before the retrial, Peterson accepted an Alford plea deal and was freed based on time already served.
Sandie Craddock Used PMS As Her Murder Defense
By the time Sandie Craddock was 29, this London resident already had dozens of criminal convictions, but now she was charged with the murder of a fellow barmaid. What seemed like an open and shut case of murder was turned on its head when Craddock’s legal team chose the defense of diminished responsibility due to premenstrual syndrome (commonly referred to as PMS).
Experts were able to prove that all of Craddock’s crimes and suicide attempts took place during this phase of her menstrual cycle and the court agreed that she was not in control of her faculties. Craddock’s charge was reduced to manslaughter and she was released on probation and obligated to remain on hormone therapy.
John Hinckley Jr. Said The Movie Taxi Driver Inspired Him To Shoot The President
After seeing the 1976 film Taxi Driver, John Hinckley Jr. became obsessed with Jodi Foster, one of the film’s stars.
Hinckley decided the only way for him to ever get Foster’s attention would be for him to do something big. Taking a cue from the character Travis Bickle from the film, he decided that assassinating the president would do the trick. In 1981, Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan, police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and press secretary James Brady.
The case seemed open and shut: if you shoot the president, you go to jail. However, the defense argued that Hinckley was insane. A team of psychiatrists agreed and the court was even shown Taxi Driver in its entirety. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The public outcry that followed was loud enough to force Congress to revise laws and make the insanity defense more difficult to use.
Johnny Cochrane Said, If It Doesn’t Fit, You Must Acquit
Most people are familiar with the trial of O.J. Simpson. In 1994, Simpson was charged with the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend, Ronald Goldman. After a long and public trial, defense lawyer Johnny Cochrane had his client try on a bloody glove that was found at the scene of the crime. When the glove did not fit Simpson’s hand, Cochrane famously announced, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Simpson was found not guilty of the murder charges.
Ethan Couch Was A Victim Of His Own Wealth
Ethan Couch killed four people when he decided to drink and drive. It seemed like an easy case for the prosecution: if you drink and drive, and kill four people, you go to jail. The defense team did not agree, however. They chose the “affluenza” defense. They argued that their client was so sheltered by his family’s wealth that he effectively didn’t know right from wrong, and that Couch was a victim, too.
In a baffling decision, the judge agreed and sentenced Couch to only 10 years probation. Couch did end up serving two years in prison for violating his probation. He was released on April 2, 2018.
Tonda Lynn Ansley and the ‘Matrix Defense’
In 2002, Tonda Lynn Ansley was arrested after shooting her landlady in the head. When police asked her why she had committed the crime, Ansley responded, “They kill a lot of people in The Matrix.”
Turns out Ansley believed that The Matrix was real and she was living in it. She also claimed that her landlady was trying to brainwash and kill her. The court found her not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense strategy is now known as “the Matrix defense,” and several other court cases have used it.
Juan Rivera’s Bloody Shoes Proved The Police Set Him Up
Juan Rivera was charged and convicted three separate times for the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker, in Waukegan, Illinois. Despite his confession being coerced, his DNA not being found at the scene, and the semen found at the crime not being his, Rivera was sentenced to life, three different times.
After his third conviction was overturned, the court was so convinced of his innocence that they barred the prosecution from attempting to retry Rivera. Rivera’s shoes, which were used as evidence in his trial, contained both blood and semen from the crime scene. The only problem: those shoes were not available for purchase until after the date of the crime. This proved that evidence was planted by the police and resulted in Rivera winning 20 million dollars in his wrongful conviction settlement.
Vincent Gigante Walked Around New York City in His Pajamas
Vincent “The Chin” Gigante was the boss of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005. Gigante was also known as The Oddfather, because he frequently walked around New York’s Greenwich Village in his robe, talked to parking meters, and urinated on the street.
He beat several criminal cases against him by convincing doctors that he was legally insane. In fact, Gigante would publicly act insane even when he was not on trial to bolster these claims. The act proved successful for over 20 years before he was finally found competent to stand trial and convicted.