15 Ridiculous Murder Defenses That Actually Worked

True crime is not always simple. Even the most 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. 

Sometimes people do indeed get away with murder. A person can commit a terrible crime and walk away free because their defense concocted some brilliant scheme that makes just enough sense to keep a jury from convicting them. Other times, innocent people are wrongly accused, and it takes a creative, surprising defense to clear their good name.

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

    Michael Peterson Believes An Owl Killed His Wife
    Photo: CBS 17 / YouTube

    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.

    Since Peterson’s conviction, Pollard has managed to find several owl experts who corroborate his theory. In 2010, Pollard's theories were made public and several articles were written on this mysterious yet sensible owl defense. The story garnered enough attention that Peterson was granted a new trial, which was set to begin on May 8, 2017. However, a few months before the retrial, he accepted an Alford plea deal and was freed based on time already served.

  • Sandie Craddock Used PMS As Her Murder Defense

    Sandie Craddock Used PMS As Her Murder Defense
    Photo: larrywkoester / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    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. Soon Hinckley’s obsession with the starlet grew and he began to stalk her, sending her letters, calling her on the phone, and even taking classes with her at the same university.

    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.

  • Steven Steinberg Sleepwalked Through A Murder

    Steven Steinberg Sleepwalked Through A Murder
    Photo: kafeole / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    In 1982, Scottsdale, Arizona, resident Steven Steinberg was accused of stabbing his wife 26 times. Initially, Steinberg blamed his wife’s murder on an intruder until police found evidence linking Steinberg to the crime. He quickly changed his tune, claiming he had been sleepwalking when the murder occurred. During the trial, a psychiatrist was able to confirm that Steinberg had been sleepwalking and was in a state of “dissociative reaction.” The court found Steinberg not guilty.

  • Lawyer Clement Vallandigham Re-Created The Scene, Including The Death

    In 1871, Thomas McGehan was on trial for the murder of Tom Myers, the result of a barroom brawl. McGehan’s lawyer, Clement Vallandigham, set out to prove that his client was innocent because he believed the victim had shot himself after trying to draw his pistol from a kneeling position. In an attempt to prove his case, Vallandigham put what he thought was an unloaded gun in his pocket, kneeled down to recreate the scene, attempted to pull the pistol out of his pocket, and accidently shot himself in the abdomen. He died a few days later but his client, Thomas McGehan, was acquitted and released from custody.

  • Dan White Assassinated Two And Used The Twinkie Defense

    Dan White assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall in 1978. During the trial, White’s legal teamed argued that their client suffered diminished capacity due to depression and therefore was not capable of premeditated murder.

    The defense team pointed to White’s change in diet, which had always been healthy but now consisted of sugary food and drinks, to prove his state of depression leading up to the murders. This strategy would later be referred to as "the Twinkie defense,” Twinkies being a staple of White's diet at the time of the crime.

    The defense worked and White was charged with voluntary manslaughter with a sentence of seven years. The case drew the ire of San Francisco’s gay community (Milk was a prominent gay rights activist) and set off the city’s White Night Riots. The decision was unpopular enough for California to eliminate its “diminished capacity” laws.