April 17, 2008

The platypus defense

Preparing his closing arguments in an Oakland wife-killing trial, a defense attorney did some unusual zoological research. To understand oddity, he reasoned, the jury should hear about the duck-billed platypus.

The platypus, as most readers will know, is a semi-aquatic Australian creature. When Europeans first discovered it, some considered it an elaborate fraud due to its bizarre, cobbled-together appearance - a duck's bill, a beaver's tail, an otter's feet, and - as we will see - some characteristics of a reptile.

William DuBois likened his client to a genetic mistake while looking at him disdainfully, according to the trial blog of newspaper reporter Henry K. Lee:
"Did you know that the platypus is the only mammal that lays eggs?"* DuBois asked the jury, smiling. "I was trying to think recently how a platypus could even evolve. It must have been a genetic mistake. That's why it reminded me of --" DuBois trailed off but turned his head and gave a disdainful look at his client. Some laughter in the courtroom.
Whether or not the jury convicts Hans Reiser of killing his missing wife, the defense attorney's closing argument is likely to go down in the annals of novel defenses.

Explaining the computer programmer's strange and off-putting behavior both after his wife's mysterious disappearance and during the five-month trial, attorney DuBois showed the jury a stuffed platypus, and later a slide image of a real-life platypus.

Reiser, the attorney said, is the "duck-billed platypus of criminal defendants, the duck-billed platypus amongst some of his peers, the duck-billed platypus amongst normal people."

"He is odd in every way. Odd in the way he carries himself. Odd in the way he acts. Odd in the way he speaks."

Reiser's platypus nature explains not only his strange behavior but also his victimization by law enforcement, the attorney contended.

After all, as everyone knows, "It's easy to screw a platypus."

DuBois characterized the platypus as helpless, telling the jury, "I don't know how they stay away from predators. They must taste terrible."

DuBois will resume his closing argument on Monday, after which prosecutor Paul Hora will have a second shot at the jury. If he's smart, Hora may do his own research on the platypus.

As it turns out, the quasi-reptilian creature is not as cute and cuddly as the stuffed animal might make him appear. Indeed, it is one of the few venomous mammals: A spur on the male's hind foot delivers a powerful venom capable of killing other animals its size.

Listen for yourself to the platypus growl:

*The platypus is actually not the only egg-laying mammal. There's one other, in the same Monotreme family. It's called an echidna.

My subsequent essay, on the jury verdict, is here. Henry K. Lee’s blog on the trial is
here. Wikipedia has more on the platypus.

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