Florida Prosecutor Accuses Defense Attorney of Using "Chewbacca Defense" in a Federal Court Case
It didn’t go well.
In what's believed to be a first for federal court, a lawyer accused a prosecutor of using a Chewbacca defense, Insider reported. The Chewbacca defense, a non-sequitur intended to distract, originated in a 1998 episode of South Park titled "Chef Aid." In one scene, a lawyer (a takeoff of O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran) defends his clients by talking about how Chewbacca, the giant furry Wookie, "lives on the planet Endor." Although the argument has nothing to do with anything, he wins over the jury twice. Read on to find out how it went down, what the judge had to say about it, and what happened when the defendant tried to have the whole trial thrown out.
The case in question involved Paul Berkins Moise, a Florida tax preparer who was indicted on federal tax fraud charges. During closing arguments, Moise's defense lawyer said the IRS agents who investigated him were required to revise their initial calculations about Moise's income and expenses. The attorney argued that because the IRS agents' "work was so bad," their testimony couldn't be trusted.
In his rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Arnold Corsmeier said the IRS agents' initial calculations had "nothing to do with this case," and the attorneys were using a Chewbacca defense. "And I don't want to seem flip, but some of you may have seen it," he said. "I think it's a South Park episode. And there's a character on there who is—plays kind of a shyster attorney. And there's a scene where he's giving his closing, and he puts up a picture of a Wookie from Star Wars. And he said: That's a Wookie. What does that have to do with this case? Nothing. That doesn't make any sense. This case doesn't make any sense."
Moise's lawyer objected and claimed the prosecutor was implying he was a "shyster lawyer." The judge told the jury to "disregard those last couple of statements about the South Park episode." Ultimately, the jury found Moise guilty of 14 counts of filing false returns on behalf of unknowing clients and three counts of filing false returns on his own behalf. He was sentenced to 35 months in prison and fined $77,000. But that wasn't the end of it.
Moise appealed, claiming the trial was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. He alleged that the prosecutor's "shyster" comment "deprived him of a fair trial," saying it "poisoned the minds of the jury and likely confirmed for some of them their prejudices against defense attorneys." In a unanimous decision, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
In their decision, the judges said "the prosecutor made an improper remark" but saw "nothing in the record to suggest that Moise was prejudiced by the 'shyster' comment. It was a single, isolated remark in an eight-day trial, and we cannot say it permeated the entire trial." But now South Park has material for a future episode.
Although the South Park reference was a first for federal court, the long-running animated series has created a legitimate legal precedent that is frequently cited in courtrooms across America. In the 2011 case Brownmark Films v. Comedy Partners, the 7th US District Court of Appeals ruled that the show's parody of the viral video What What in the episode Canada on Strike constituted fair use. The Hollywood Reporter called it "of the many important legal decisions to hit the entertainment industry these past five years, the one that has been cited the most in courtrooms across the nation."