US & Canada

Affluenza: Five unusual criminal defences

This photo taken by presidential photographer Mike Evens on March 30, 1981 shows police and Secret Service agents reacting during the assassination attempt on then US president Ronald Reagan, Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption When John Hinckley attempted to kill Ronald Reagan, he said he was trying to impress a certain movie star

The leniency showed by a US court to a rich young teenager who killed four people in a drunk-driving accident surprised many.

Ethan Couch's family money didn't just buy him the best defence, it was his defence.

When Couch, 18, appeared before a Texas court in 2014, his lawyers argued that he suffered from affluenza, an unusual - and not medically recognised - condition in which a gilded upbringing is said to prevent the sufferer grasping the consequences of their actions. And it worked.

Couch's controversial excuse ranks alongside a long list of unusual and creative criminal defences offered up over the years. Here are five of the most notable.

The Twinkie defence

When San Francisco official Dan White shot dead the city's Mayor George Moscone and pioneering gay supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, he faced a possible death penalty.

But White walked away with an eight-year sentence, and ended up serving only five. He was acquitted of murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter, despite shooting the men in cold blood.

How? The defence that got him off the hook went down as one of the most famous in US justice history, and became just as widely misunderstood.

White's lawyers argued diminished capacity, based on his bouts of depression. The defence described how he turned in the days before the murder to junk food, including the US snack cake Twinkies.

The junk food was a symptom of White's state of mind, they said, but he went down in history as the man who got off a murder charge because he had eaten sugary snacks the night before.

The human brewery

Driving at four times the limit doesn't usually leave you with too much room for manoeuvre with the police.

But one unnamed 35-year-old schoolteacher stopped in New York State had charges against her dropped after her lawyers told the court that her digestive system sometimes converted food into alcohol.

The condition, called auto-brewery syndrome, causes high levels of yeast in the intestines to ferment high-carbohydrate foods, doctors say.

"She can register a blood alcohol content that would have you or I falling down drunk, but she can function," her lawyer Joseph Marusak told the Buffalo News newspaper.

Crime of the month

In 1980, Sandie Craddock, a London barmaid, stabbed a co-worker to death. She was charged with murder but convicted of manslaughter, and her defence was a first.

Craddock, who had a long list of prior convictions, argued that her mood had been significantly affected by her period.

PMS - or pre-menstrual syndrome - has been used as a criminal defence in the UK several times since, and in 1995 the American Psychiatric Association added it to its list of real depressive disorders.

Oral arguments

When Heather Specyalski was charged with causing a fatal car crash in Connecticut in 1999 she had to prove she wasn't behind the wheel.

Ms Specyalski surprised the court when she said she couldn't have been driving because she was, in fact, performing oral sex on the driver, who died.

Her lawyer noted that the driver's trousers were found to have been loosened before the crash, and Specyalski was acquitted.

"A defendant has a right to offer a defence no matter how outlandish, silly or unbelievable one might think it will be," said Superior Court Judge Robert Holzberg.

Taxi Driver

John Hinckley appeared in court in 1981 on one of the most serious charges you can face in the US - attempting to kill the president.

Earlier that year, Hinckley opened fire at Ronald Reagan, wounding the president and three others.

Part of Hinckley's defence argument was that he was inspired by the film Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro and Jodi Foster. He said he had watched the film 15 times and identified with De Niro's character.

He also told the court he had become fixated with Foster and shot the president to get her attention. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

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