Canada

Oddly legal defences

A look at peculiar arguments in the Canadian courtroom and abroad.

A look at peculiar arguments in the Canadian courtroom and abroad

Like the statue of Lady Justice, judges must weigh competing, and sometimes strange, claims in court. (iStockphoto)
Copious amounts of sugar made you do it, or was it an act committed in your sleep? Sometimes it seems like people have used just about any excuse to try to walk out of a court scot free.

But though judges around the world have heard all kinds of unbelievable legal defences from attorneys seeking exoneration or a reduced sentence for their client, the claims are not always successful.

Here's a list of some of the more outlandish arguments made in court, with varying degrees of success.

Automatism

Like the word it's derived from, automaton, this refers to people acting in a robotic way, performing unconscious and involuntary actions.

One high-profile Canadian case in 1974 involved a University of Toronto student, Wayne Rabey, who attacked a female classmate he'd developed feelings for. He'd found a note written by her that referred to him as nothing. Later, upon seeing her, he hit her on the head, then choked her while she was unconscious. Witnesses described him as acting bewildered, having shaky speech, a fast pulse and limp appearance. He was acquitted, but the case was eventually appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled Rabey suffered from a disease of the mind and thus could be confined to an institution.

The defence was used again in Canadian courts, with less success. Bert Stone of British Columbia ended up with a lesser conviction for manslaughter after stabbing his wife 47 times in 1994. Stone said the stabbing was a reaction provoked by his wife's nagging. He described feeling a "whooshing" sensation wash over him at the time, then becoming conscious of a hunting knife in his hand and his wife slumped over beside him.

Gay panic defence

This legal defence's low success rate has continued to fall over the years as acceptance of homosexuality grows around the world. The argument goes something like this: a person subject to a sexual overture from a gay person becomes so offended or frightened that they act violently in a moment of temporary insanity. In recent years, this argument has also been adapted in transgender cases.

Examples predominantly come from south of the 49th parallel, including the so-called Jenny Jones killer, Jonathan Schmitz, who killed his male friend in 1995 after he revealed a crush on Schmitz during an episode of the talk show. The court didn't buy the gay panic argument and convicted him of murder.

A Canadian case that stands out involves a slaying after two men met at a Vancouver gay bar in 1994. The killer, Gary Gilroy, said he went home with David Gaspard and was showering when Gaspard launched an aggressive, unwanted sexual advance. Gilroy stabbed the man 65 times. He was convicted of manslaughter.

PMS defence

A defence many hormonal women may use for minor daily troubles, but premenstrual syndrome as an argument in court? True enough, the defence has been used around the globe and even has some measure of success at diminishing responsibility for minor crimes in Canadian courts.

A striking case in Britain involved the submissions of years of diaries and institutional records to show that a barmaid turned into a "raging animal each month" with bouts of violence that landed her in jail over and over again while she had PMS. When Sandie Craddock stabbed her co-worker to death in 1980, she got a lesser conviction for manslaughter and was forced to take progesterone. She was reportedly much calmer on the hormone, but had later flareups when she lapsed in using it that saw her back in court, pleading the same defence.

Sexsomnia

A term coined by a Toronto doctor, sexsomnia refers to when someone involuntarily engages in sexual acts while sleeping.

In one of the most recent cases, a woman fell asleep on a couch at a house party in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood and awoke to find a stranger having sex with her in the summer of 2003. Jan Luedecke said he only clued into the fact he had sex when he went to the bathroom and discovered he was wearing a condom. A doctor testified the sexsomnia was aggravated by alcohol and sleep deprivation. Luedecke also had a previous history of sleep sex. He was acquitted of sexual assault.

Sleepwalking

Sleep disorders, or parasomnia, are another defence that emerges from time to time in Canadian courtrooms.

An extreme example is the 1987 case of Kenneth Parks, who slept through a 23-kilometre drive to his in-laws' Toronto-area home, where he fatally stabbed his mother-in-law and seriously injured his father-in-law. Parks said his family had a history of sleep disorders and he'd been under increased pressure after losing his job and running into debt. He was acquitted.

Twinkie defence

It's the legal defence that never actually was.

Though it's widely believed that lawyers argued Dan White killed openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978 because of a mental imbalance triggered by high-sugar junk food, White's lawyers say that was never the case.

A psychiatrist, who testified about junk food at the trial, said one of his comments made in passing was misconstrued. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was describing how White had fallen out of his normal habits due to a bout of depression such as becoming slovenly and indulging in such food as Twinkies and Coca-Cola instead of his typically healthful diet. He added that those with a general disposition to bipolar mood swings can be affected by what they ingest.

And so the Twinkie Defence myth was born. Unfortunately, it may have just as long a shelf-life as its namesake.

Urban survival syndrome

In the dog-eat-dog battleground of U.S. inner-city neighbourhoods, this is a defence that may have some street cred. It's based on the notion that those growing up in violent areas experience post-traumatic stress that causes them to react in situations with more deadly force than is necessary.

The defence was used successfully in the first trial 18-year-old Daimion Osby underwent for killing two men when it ended with a hung jury. His lawyers argued his upbringing in a violent, inner-city neighbourhood triggered the actions. But a retrial saw him convicted on both counts and sentenced to life in prison.

Corrections

  • Wayne Rabey attacked a fellow University of Toronto student in a 1974 incident, but did not kill her as this article originally stated.
    Nov 29, 2015 2:53 AM ET