Not Guilty by Reason of Caffeine

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Reports today say that a 33-year-old Kentucky man will argue in his murder trial this week that he should be found not guilty of killing his wife because he was under the influence of caffeine at the time.

Too Much Coffee Man Woody Smith's attorney filed papers outlining a plan to assert a defense of temporary insanity, on the grounds that Smith had ingested so much caffeine from sodas, energy drinks and diet pills in the days prior to May 4, 2009, that he could not have knowingly strangled his wife. Now, I'm not an expert in criminal law, let alone Kentucky criminal law, but here are some statutes that look relevant.

"Murder" under Kentucky law means acting with intent to cause the death of another person (and succeeding, of course). The intent element can be negated if the defendant acted "under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse," but that is not a defense to a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter. Kentucky law also provides that a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if, due to mental illness, he "lack[ed] substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law." The defendant has the burden of proof to show this, and has to file written notice of his intent to assert the defense at least 20 days before trial, so this may be what Smith is arguing.

If so, I guess that would mean he will argue he did not appreciate it was a criminal act to tie up his wife and strangle her with an extension cord.

The report says Smith told a psychologist (the defense's expert) that he remembers taking his kids to school that day, but not much else. He said he had not been sleeping well, or at all, and was reportedly drinking "five or six" sodas and energy drinks per day, plus diet pills, adding up to more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. This is the equivalent of about four cups of coffee. The expert, though, will testify that Smith was suffering from "brief psychosis" due to severe insomnia caused in turn by the caffeine and also, in part, by fear that his wife was about to leave him.

The idea that four cups of coffee a day might be enough to turn law-abiding people into killers might make your next trip to Starbucks more exciting, at least. And, in fact, a trip to Starbucks was involved in the one known previous successful assertion of the too-much-caffeine defense. According to, vehicular-assault charges against an Idaho man were dismissed earlier this year after he claimed he had run two people down because of lack of sleep and "two large coffees" at Starbucks. (Those people survived.) In that case, at least, the defendant seems to have actually been diagnosed with a rare form of bipolar disorder that could be triggered by insomnia and/or caffeine. So far there is no report of any such disorder being alleged in Smith's case, but we shall see.

The Idaho man's attorney described the defense as "temporary insanity."  "If you sat down and talked with him now," he said, "you'd think he's as normal as you and I." I don't doubt that. I may also be a little more alert at Starbucks, especially if Smith is acquitted.