Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Chewbacca defense

One of my superiors is in trial right now, and the defense attorney (who is not a public defender; apparently the defendant hired him) has been arguing points that are so far out of left field that many of us find ourselves sitting through this trial just to find out what will happen next. A colleague stated the defense attorney was using a method known as the Chewbacca Defense, which I had only heard of in passing. Naturally, I went on an immediate search for this, and believe it or not, it's a dead ringer for what's going on in the courtroom.
The Chewbacca Defense is a satirical term for any legal strategy that seeks to overwhelm its udience with nonsensical arguments and thus confuse them into failing to take account of the opposing arguments and, ultimately, to reject them. It is thus a kind of logical fallacy, specifically a red herring fallacy and non sequitur similar to argumentum ad nauseam.

The term originated in the animated television series
South Park. In its typically hyperbolic style, the show satirized real-life lawyer Johnnie Cochran's closing argument defending O.J. Simpson in his murder trial.

Right now, attorneys across the world who are reading this know exactly what I'm talking about. But, it's not until you read the transcript from an episode of South Park, that you realize there's a name for the madness you've seen displayed.

In the episode, Johnnie Cochran defends a "major record company" against copyright violation charges by regular series character Chef—that the (fictional) song "Stinky Britches" by Alanis Morissette was in fact originally written by Chef, a claim that the story makes obvious to the viewer and is supported by reasonable evidence. In response, Cochran resorts to his "famous" Chewbacca Defense, which he "used during the Simpson trial", according to another South Park character.

Ladies and gentlemen of the supposed jury, Chef's attorney would certainly want you to believe that his client wrote "Stinky Britches" ten years ago. And they make a good case. Hell, I almost felt pity myself! But ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider: Ladies and gentlemen this [pointing to a picture of Chewbacca] is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk, but Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now, think about that. That does not make sense! Why would a Wookiee—an eight foot tall Wookiee—want to live on Endor with a bunch of two foot tall Ewoks? That does not make sense!

But more important, you have to ask yourself, what does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense!

Look at me, I'm a lawyer defending a major record company, and I'm talkin' about Chewbacca. Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense. None of this makes sense!

And so you have to remember, when you're in that jury room deliberating and conjugating the Emancipation Proclamation... does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense. If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.

[It is perhaps worth noting parenthetically that in the Star Wars series, Chewbacca (a
Wookiee) does not in fact live on Endor. It is also worth noting that Ewoks do not live on Endor itself, but rather on the forest moon thereof.]

That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the Chewbacca Defense. One thing I've noticed [in life] is the funniest things are the ones that you can point to and say, "That happened to me yesterday!" The sad part is that no one will believe that some defense attorneys use the Chewbacca Defense on a daily basis. I've seen judges rest their head in their hands, with a look on their face like they're on the verge of tears, because they don't know what to do with the mayhem that is occuring in their courtroom. But, the beautiful part of our justice system is that arguments like that are allowed, and as long as they don't get personal, misstate previous testimony, refer to facts not in evidence, or cross the line into prosecutorial misconduct, they can take it and run.

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