The O. J. Simpson Trial and the Chewbacca Defense

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesTwenty years later, the O.J. Simpson trial once again captivated America. Based on Jeffrey Tobin’s bestseller, The Run of His Life, FX’s 10-part series, The People v. O.J. Simpson, provided fascinating behind-the-scenes details of the legal teams, O.J., his family, the jury members, and other key players that viewers of the original trial always wondered about. Although the series is not a documentary, it does provide unique insights into the legal strategies that led to O.J. Simpson’s surprising acquittal for two murders in October 1995 that sent shockwaves through the nation that still reverberate today.

When watching the series one thing becomes clear: Johnny Cochran’s strategy for defending O.J. Simpson was masterful. By playing the race card and focusing on the leather gloves and repeating that famous phrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran brilliantly sidestepped piles of damning evidence to cast a cloud of confusion over the jury members. This rhetorical device, in which a logical yet entirely unrelated argument is put forward to cloud the relevant issues, is known as ignoratio elenchi (translated from the Latin, it means “an ignoring of refutation” or “ignoring the issue”). Aristotle identified this relevance fallacy, commonly known as “missing the point,” in Organon, one of his six works on logic. 

Fast forward to 1998. Central Comedy’s hilarious animated sitcom, South Park, featured an episode satirizing Cochran’s famous defense. In the episode, titled “Chef Aid,” Chef is sued by a major record company for harassment because Chef is seeking authorship credit for the hit song “Stinky Britches.” Chef’s attorney, Gerald Broflovski, presents a solid case with convincing factual evidence. During closing arguments, Cochran resorts to ignoratio elenchi by introducing Chewbacca, the feisty furry Wookiee warrior from the Star Wars movies, as evidence. WTF? Although Cochran’s new closing line lacks the alliteration and rhyme of the famous line from the O.J. trial, it does have its intended effect on the jury — Chef loses the case. Here is an excerpt from the animated trial:

Cochran: “[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!

Broflovski: “Damn it! He’s using the Chewbacca defense!”

Cochran: “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.”

It didn’t take long after the episode aired (October 7, 1998) for the “Chewbacca defense” to find its way into the English lexicon as a slang term for the more pretentious ignoratio elenchi. Thanks Chewy. The jury is dismissed.

Read related posts: Why are People Fascinated by Making a Murderer?
Why are People Watch The Batchelor?
The Most Common Logical Fallacies
Why Do Some New Words Last and Others Fade?

For further reading: Word Drops by Paul Anthony Jones (2016)
Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs (2013)
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi (2014)

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