A Chewbacca defense is the name in the United States given to a legal strategy in which the aim of the argument seems to be to deliberately confuse the jury rather than to factually refute the case of the other side. This term was used in an episode of the animated series South Park, "Chef Aid", which premiered on October 7, 1998. This episode satirized attorney Johnnie Cochran's closing argument defending O. J. Simpson in his murder trial. The term has since been commonly used in describing legal cases, especially criminal ones. The concept of disguising a flaw in one's argument by presenting large amounts of irrelevant information has previously been described as the modern-day equivalent of a red herring or the fallacy ignoratio elenchi (irrelevant conclusion).
Within the context of the episode, the fictional Cochran begins his defense case by basing his argument on the Star Wars film series, specifically on the (incorrect) claim that the character Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. He goes on to point out first the supposed senselessness of this decision, noting that "it does not make sense", and then how his use of Star Wars as evidence in a harassment suit "does not make sense" either, and that therefore the case should be dismissed. His closing argument: "If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit", lampoons Cochran's "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" phrase used in his defense argument for Simpson.
In the episode, Chef contacts a "major record company" executive, seeking to have his name credited as the composer of a fictional Alanis Morissette hit called "Stinky Britches". Chef's claim is substantiated by a 20‑year-old recording of Chef performing the song.
The record company refuses and hires Johnnie Cochran, who files a lawsuit against Chef for harassment. In court, Cochran resorts to his "famous" Chewbacca defense, which he "used during the Simpson trial," according to Chef's lawyer, Gerald Broflovski. Although Broflovski uses logic, reasoning and the fact that Chef properly copyrighted his work, Cochran counters with the following:
- ...ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!
- Gerald Broflovski
- Damn it! ... He's using the Chewbacca defense!
- Why would a Wookiee, an 8-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of 2-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 deliberatin' and conjugatin' 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.
This penultimate statement is a parody of Cochran's closing arguments in the O. J. Simpson murder case, where he says to the jury, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!" He was referring to a courtroom demonstration in which Simpson appeared unable to put on a pair of bloody leather gloves found at the murder scene and his house over surgical gloves.
In the episode, Cochran's defense is successful. The jury finds Chef guilty of "harassing a major record label", after which the judge sets his punishment as either a $2 million fine to be paid within 24 hours or, failing that, four years in prison (the judge initially sentences him to eight million years before being corrected by a court officer).
Ultimately, a "Chef Aid" benefit concert is organized to raise money for Chef to hire Cochran for his own lawsuit against the record company. At the concert, Cochran has a change of heart and offers to represent Chef pro bono. He again successfully uses the Chewbacca defense, this time to defeat the record company and force them to acknowledge Chef's authorship of their song. In the second use of the Chewbacca defense, he ends by taking out a monkey puppet and shouting, "Here, look at the monkey. Look at the silly monkey!" causing a juror's head to explode.
Criminologist Dr. Thomas O'Connor says that when DNA evidence shows "inclusion", that is, does not exonerate a client by exclusion from the DNA sample provided, "About the only thing you can do is attack the lab for its (lack of) quality assurance and proficiency testing, or use a 'Chewbacca defense' … and try to razzle-dazzle the jury about how complex and complicated the other side's evidence or probability estimates are." Forensic scientist Erin Kenneally has argued that court challenges to digital evidence frequently use the Chewbacca defense by presenting multiple alternative explanations of forensic evidence obtained from computers and Internet providers to confuse the jury into reasonable doubt. Kenneally also provides methods that can be used to rebut a Chewbacca defense. Kenneally and colleague Anjali Swienton have presented this topic before the Florida State Court System and at the 2005 American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting.
The term has also seen use in political commentary; Ellis Weiner wrote in The Huffington Post that Dinesh D'Souza was using the Chewbacca defense in criticism of then-new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, defining it as when "someone asserts his claim by saying something so patently nonsensical that the listener's brain shuts down completely".
The term was used by Paul Krugman, who wrote in The New York Times that John Taylor is using the Chewbacca defense as a seemingly last option for defending his hawkish monetary policy position, after years of publicly stating that "quantitative easing would lead to a major acceleration of inflation."
- Willing v. State, Slip Copy at n.1 (Sup. Ct. Nev. May 14, 2013).
- Bd. of Trustees of Galveston Wharves v. Trelleborg, CV 10-2319-GW (C.D. Cal. Nov. 22, 2010)
- Video of the scene is available.
- "CNN Interactive: Video Almanac - 1995". Archived from the original on 2010-12-04.
- "Cochran was rare attorney turned pop culture figure". Associated Press. March 30, 2005. Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Thomas O'Connor, Ph.D., Austin Peay State University Center at Ft. Campbell and North Carolina Wesleyan College. "DNA Typing and Identification". Archived from the original on 2006-10-09. Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Erin Kenneally, M.F.S., J.D. "Applying Admissibility, Reliability to Technology" (PDF). Florida State Courts. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-12-07. Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Anjali R. Swienton, M.F.S., J.D. Erin Kenneally, M.F.S., J.D. "Poking the Wookie: the Chewbacca Defense in Digital Evidence Cases" (PDF). SciLaw Forensics, Ltd. Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- "Upcoming AAFS Annual Meeting". CERIAS, Purdue University. Archived from the original on 2009-01-08. Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Ellis Weiner (January 24, 2007). "D is for Diabolical". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Heinrichs, Jay (2007). Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. New York: Three Rivers Press. pp. 148–49. ISBN 978-0-307-34144-0.
- Paul Krugman (July 12, 2013). "The Monetary Debate: Enter Chewbacca". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-07-12.
- Arp, Robert (December 2006). "The Chewbacca Defense: A South Park Logic Lesson". In Arp, Robert. South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-6160-2.
- John G. Browning, A Long Time Ago, in A Courtroom Far, Far Away There's No Denying That the Force Is All Around Us-Even Judges Refer to George Lucas's Pop Culture Science Fiction Saga, 77 Tex. B.J. 158, 161 (2014) Texas Bar Journal