The ‘Shaggy defense’ and other pop-culture legal strategies

A recent declaration by our sister publication, Virginia Lawyers Weekly, that the “Shaggy defense” is a term of legal art went national this week.

That’s thanks to Slate, the online magazine that picked up a recent VLW story on a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling on a summary judgment motion. In Preston v. Morton, David Morton said he was working on traffic lights in a bucket truck when William Preston, driving a tractor trailer, hit the truck.

Preston’s defense? “It wasn’t me.”

You can read more about U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser’s opinion in the civil case here. The defense — coined during the 2008 child pornography trial of singer R. Kelly and attributed to the song “It Wasn’t Me” by reggae star Shaggy — got me thinking of other uses of popular culture in cases. As someone who has not gone through law school, this kind of terminology helps me to understand the basic facts.

For example, South Park taught me one way to win a case is with the Chewbacca defense. O.J. Simpson’s intrepid lawyer, Johnnie Cochrane, was cartoon-ized on “South Park” in the season 2 episode “Chef Aid.” He wins his case despite an absurd argument:

“Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor? If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit!” he shouted to the jury.

Here are two other cases that show popular culture making its way into law:

  • The Matrix defense: Three defendants claimed insanity from being convinced they committed the crimes in a Matrix-like virtual reality. Two were found not guilty, but Joshua Cooke, accused of murdering his parents in February 2003, ended up pleading guilty later that year.
  • The Twinkie defense: Dan White, a former San Francisco city supervisor, claimed that junk food diminished his mental capacity, resulting in the murder of city mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. White’s lawyer successfully argued the case and the sentence was reduced to manslaughter.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Shaggy defense’ and other pop-culture legal strategies

  1. Great article. The “twinkie” defense is my all time favorite. I have shared this on my facebook page and twitter feed.

    Recently, I had a client charged with cocain who claimed it was a powdered donut (the “powdered donut defense”). As it turns out, he was correct. Analysis of drugs came back “No CDS found”

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Very fascinating! The OJ Simpson is by far the most unbelievable defense I’ve seen in my lifetime. A black glove got him acquitted.

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