5 Insane Ways People Defended Themselves In Court (And Won)
Many people avoid getting convicted of crimes by exploiting the loophole known as "never getting arrested." But for everyone else, the courtroom is a terrifying place, where you need every strategy available to save your own skin. We've all heard of the Chewbacca defense and the Twinkie defense, so let's next turn our eyes to the time that ...
A Lawyer Proved His Client's Videos Weren't Obscene By Revealing Just How Much Porn Everyone Else Buys
What exactly is "obscenity," a type of speech not protected by the First Amendment? No one knows. It's a subjective standard, all about violating ill-defined norms rather than breaking a clear law. When the Supreme Court considered obscenity in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart said he'd "not today attempt further to define" it, but "I know it when I see it." And since he sided against the censors in that particular case, people remember his words as wise, but really, it's a pretty vague and bullshit way of deciding what people can legally publish.
Even today, courts must consider the Miller test, which depends on "contemporary community standards" for separating the good smut from the 4Chan. So in 1996, when Larry W. Peterman was called to account for his Utah video store's inventory, community standards were all he had as a defense. Well, he also thought it worth mentioning that he'd put all the sex videos behind a curtain labeled "over 21 only," so it wasn't his fault that a couple of parents let their five-year-old wiener kids run past it and see copies of Sticky Lips and Sex Wish. Still, that argument didn't stop authorities from seizing 1,000 of his tapes and arresting him.
Petermen's lawyer, Randy Spencer, noticed that opposite the courtroom was a Marriot hotel. And it occurred to him: Hey, hotels sell pay-per-view porn, don't they? This was a great idea, and sometime after that, he remembered, Wait, I'm also defending a case related to porn, and he had an even greater idea: What if he checked to see how much porn people rent from there? There was no better way to test the community standards for acceptable porn levels. Wait, hold on -- there was a better way. He could contact cable providers and see how much porn homeowners buy. Spencer checked both, and he discovered the county consumed more porn the rest of America did on average.
"Well, this is just a little Peyton Place, and you're all Utah County hypocrites!" said Spencer (we're paraphrasing here). Why were they going after this one guy, when people were all watching porn themselves -- and from such places as a hotel backed by a pillar of the community W. Mitt Romney, who ran the Salt Lake City Olympics? The jury found Petermen not guilty. Then they all went home and masturbated with clear consciences.
Disney Performers Couldn't Have Fondled Guests Because Of Their Comically Oversized Hands
Tigger warning: The following story describes costumed Disney characters engaging in acts of sexual impropriety. Specifically, in 2004, a guest said that performer Michael Chartrand had groped both her and her daughter while dressed as Tigger. According to lawyer Jeffrey Kaufman, however, Chartrand could have done no such thing. Maybe the performer's arm could brush against a guest's breasts -- Chartrand wrote out a letter of apology in case this had happened -- but actual groping? The costume was too unwieldy for that. To prove it, Kaufman put the costume on in the courtroom, starting with the tail and moving on to the rest. There are photos, and they're as ridiculous as you're picturing.
Mind you, not all costumes incapacitate the wearer to the point that groping is impossible. At other times, Disney has settled cases of guests accusing performers of groping, such as this case of someone role-playing a horny Donald Duck. But in the case of Michael Chartrand, the jury decided there was no way he could have committed the offense in question, and they acquitted him. Disney even rehired the guy. For about a month, until they suspended him again, this time for shoving a couple of photographers while dressed as Goofy. Hey, we're just saying the guy didn't GROPE anyone, not that he was always a model employee. Anyone stuck in hot, giant costume, while "It's A Small World" plays on loop, is going to act up eventually.
Remarkably, this wasn't the only time Disney performers accused of assaulting guests have turned to this defense. In 1981, actor Robert Hill was on trial for allegedly slapping a nine-year-old girl while dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh. Lawyer Mike McCray didn't put on a Pooh costume in the courtroom. No, he had Hill put the costume on himself. "What do you do at Disneyland?" asked McCray, and in a move that you'd think would have someone objecting or pounding a gavel, Hill stood then and did a jig. "Have the record show that he's doing a two-step," said the judge. This costume's arms hung too low for him to possibly slap a child, agreed the jury.
That same lawyer, Mike McCray, once heard from a guest who said one of the Three Little Pigs grabbed her breasts from behind and called her "mommy," an experience so stressful she gained 50 pounds. This was a more obviously false accusation. The pig costumes at the time did not have operable arms at all, just stiff stubs, and a simple photo of the costume convinced the plaintiff to drop the case. Truly, it's tough being a Disney performer, always vulnerable to being accused of groping. Though not as tough as being a Disney performer, always vulnerable to be the victim of groping.
A Lawyer Disguised An Employee As The Defendant To Confuse The Cop In Court
You know that part of a trial you've seen in movies, where the lawyer asks the witness to identify the culprit, and they point to the defendant? It's not just a maneuver made up for the big screen, and when Christopher Simac was on trial, the lawyer asked the cop giving testimony to point out the criminal in question. It was a little weird that the defense lawyer was making this request -- even counterproductive on the defense's part, you'd think -- but that wasn't Officer Ronald LaMorte's concern.
LaMorte pointed to the defense table, to a tall bespectacled man in a striped shirt. That seemed to be the person he'd arrested all right, at a traffic accident outside Chicago for not having a valid license. Fine, fine, said the lawyer, David Sotomayor. And next, he called the bespectacled guy to the stand. "Were you driving anywhere near the accident scene on March 20, 1990, the date in question?" he asked. No, said the witness. Wait, was this man on the stand even Christopher Simac, the defendant? No, said the witness. Then who was he? "David Armanentos," he said. Sotomayor had recently hired him as a temporary clerk.
Christopher Simac? As required, he was in court but was sitting in the back of the room. And when the prosecution recalled the cop and asked him to point out the culprit again, he managed to identify Simac successfully. But it was no use. If the cop couldn't tell the difference between the man he'd arrested and some rando a lawyer had pulled off the street, how could we depend on him for anything?
For his stunt, lawyer Sotomayor was held in contempt and fined $100. He was guilty of "conduct calculated to embarrass, hinder or obstruct a court in its administration of justice or to derogate from its authority or dignity." But Simac was found not guilty, which is the important thing. Besides, if you're a Chicago lawyer and haven't been held in contempt yet, you aren't even trying.
The Slave Who Couldn't Be Guilty Of Treason
You don't hear a lot about what slaves were doing during the American Revolution, but it turns out they did quite a lot. Heard of Washington crossing the Delaware? A slave rowed that boat. Thousands fought in the Continental army, some gaining their freedom in the process. But thousands also gained independence by fighting for the British, through what was possibly an easier process. That George Washington person we just mentioned? One of his slaves, a guy named Harry, fled his service, went to fight for the British, then got rewarded by gaining freedom and getting to settle in Nova Scotia.
When the British granted slaves freedom and sent them somewhere far away, the colonists didn't really have much to say about that after winning the war, since they were too busy shooting beer-battered cannonballs in the air in celebration. But then you had Billy. Billy No-Surname had been a slave, and Billy No-Surname had fought on a British warship, and in 1781, with the war not yet done, he was back on land in Virginia and facing charges of treason.
Billy could have argued that slaves might have various reasons for fighting for the British. Instead, he testified that he'd never voluntarily fought at all. The British had forced him onto the ship, so Billy hadn't betrayed anyone. He hadn't fought for George III, and, honestly, he'd never even met the guy. The court did not buy his testimony, and they sentenced him to death.
"But wait!" said two dissenting judges, Henry Lee and William Carr. As a slave, Billy wasn't technically a citizen, right? He certainly didn't have the rights of a citizen. And if you aren't a citizen, how can you commit treason?
They appealed to the governor of Virginia, one Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was already bitter about slaves running away thanks to the British, having lost 30 slaves that way the past spring, and being a racist rapist. But the argument convinced him, and he issued Billy a pardon. History doesn't record what happened to the pardoned man next. But it probably wasn't popping celebratory champagne bottles, on account of, y'know, the slavery.
Related: Oops, Hamilton Did Own Slaves
An Art Dealer Accused Of Selling A Vermeer To The Nazis Proved He'd Painted It Himself
While we're talking about people held for treason after war, let's move over to World War II. We had a great many people who needed prosecution after World War II, and painters probably weren't of the highest priority over in The Hague considering the evilest one shot himself dead in his bunker. Nevertheless, Han van Meegeren was up on serious charges. During the war, he'd traded a painting by Johannes Vermeer to arch-Nazi Hermann Goering, in exchange for 134 paintings from Goering's own collection. Vermeers are very rare -- the world has only 34 of them total -- so it seems van Meegeren had not just collaborated with the Nazis but given away a Dutch treasure.
But van Meegeren insisted he'd not given Goering a Vermeer at all. The artist behind the painting that he'd traded was none other than he, Han van Meegeren! As proof, he spouted some details about pigments and techniques that flew over the officers' heads. So then one officer said, hey, if he really said he was able to paint as well as Johannes Vermeer, how about they give him a Vermeer to copy and see how well he could do it? "Pah!" said van Meegeren. "To paint a copy is no proof of artistic talent. But I shall paint you a new Vermeer. I shall paint you a masterpiece."
And so van Meegeren made a new painting in Vermeer's style, one as good as any of the many forgeries he'd done before now. "He paints for his life!" read the headlines in Dutch newspapers. It was a strange setting for the artist, surrounded by court witnesses, but he was fortunately fortified with alcohol and morphine. Reporters took photos as he painted his final work, Jesus Among the Doctors:
It convinced everyone, and the court dropped the collaboration charges. They did still charge him with, uh, forgery, which is also a crime. But that didn't matter. Van Meegeren had every intention of dying of a heart attack long before he could serve that sentence. The important thing was he'd gone from the man who'd betrayed the Netherlands to the master artist who'd fooled Nazis.
Top Image: Loren Javier/Flickr