There are a lot of reasons for why someone might want to commit a crime. Rage, passion, jealousy, and revenge are common acquaintances of evil doings. Mental illness is often involved, as are delusions and paranoia, and inscrutable demons dwelling upon the psyche, among others. We have proved that as a species we are capable of some grim, inhuman acts, and for as long as we have had a semblance of a legal system there have been those who have tried to dodge the guilt that has been thrust upon them. From voices in the head, to sleepwalking, to being possessed by literal demons, but in recent years there has been a rather odd defense that has been claimed from time to time, one based on a very prominent movie that has generated quite a bit of speculation on our reality.
In 1999, the science fiction film The Matrix was released. Directed by the The Wachowskis and starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano, the movie depicted a future in which human beings were encased in cocoons so that their life-force could be harnessed to power the sentient machines that ruled the earth. Within this dystopian future, these enslaved humans go about their lives within an artificial simulated reality in order to keep them under control, which they wholeheartedly believe and accept to be their reality. The movies, which span three films, including The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, tells the saga of a humble computer programmer who realizes that reality is not what it seems, and manages to tear free from his enforced dream-world into the real world in order to wage a war against the machines. The movies, especially the first of the series, were widely praised for their daring special effects work and deep rumination on such philosophical issues as the meaning of existence and the nature of reality, but for some it was all more than just a movie. In recent times there have emerged a series of high profile, gruesome crimes committed by people who actually seem to believe that the world of The Matrix films is literally real, that it fueled their bloodlust, and that their crimes have taken place within this false reality, even going so far as to use this as a defense in court. It is a phenomenon now known as “The Matrix Defense,” and it is every bit as bizarre as it sounds.
As insane as it may all seem, there are actually a shocking number of criminal cases where the perpetrator of a horrific crime has used this as an actual legal defense. In 2000, 27-year-old computer science student at San Francisco State University Vadim Mieseges brutally murdered fellow student Ella Wong, who had been renting him a room in her apartment. The grisly killing involved disemboweling and skinning Wong before cutting her up and unceremoniously scattering her dismembered body parts in various far flung places around the area.
When Mieseges was found by police, he was wandering around a mall with a knife, high on drugs, and acting bizarrely. Upon his arrest he spouted a good amount of nonsense gibberish before telling authorities that he was living in the virtual reality of The Matrix, and that therefore Wong had never really been a real person at all. Eventually a judge would declare him mentally incompetent to stand trial and he was institutionalized. One detective who interviewed Mieseges at the time, an Inspector Kelly Carroll, would say of the young man’s potent delusions:
He did make reference to being sucked into The Matrix. He seemed to have stepped through the looking glass, and The Matrix was a real thing to him.
In July of 2002, 37-year-old Tonda Lynn Ansley, of Butler County, Ohio, got a gun and proceeded to shoot a Miami University professor who she was renting a house from, Sherry Lee Corbett, 55, multiple times in the head. The coldblooded murder was carried out in full view of startled witnesses in broad daylight, and Ansley was quickly detained. Upon questioning, Ansley told detectives that she believed that the world they were in was not real, and that she was living in a computer simulation like in The Matrix. In this alternate reality, she said that her landlady had been involved in a conspiracy to keep her brainwashed and under the control of the simulation, as well as “invading her dreams,” with the ultimate goal of killing her. In Ansley’s mind, this was all simple self-defense against the sinister agents conspiring to keep her in the virtual dream world. She would say of her perceived predicament:
They commit a lot of crimes in ‘The Matrix. That’s where you go to sleep at night and they drug you and take you somewhere else and then they bring you back and put you in bed and, when you wake up, you think that it’s a bad dream.
This incredibly weird belief was actually the story she stuck with when she went to court, and amazingly it worked, with the judge finding her not guilty by reason of insanity. Ansley’s lawyer, Melynda Cook-Reich, would say:
Maybe in her mind she thought the matrix was real, because that’s the way she explained what was going on in her mind. But she was really just using the movie to explain that her delusions were similar to ‘The Matrix.’
Also later that same year in October of 2002 was the case of 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, who over a 3-week period carried out a series of coordinated sniper attacks with accomplice John Allen Muhammad throughout the United States and culminating in the “Beltway sniper attacks” of the states of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. All things told, these attacks left 10 people dead, and incited abject terror in a skittish population that never knew who would be targeted next. Although he did not use the films as a legal defense, while in prison Malvo drew sketches and wrote messages in his cell that alluded to The Matrix films, such as one that read:
Wake up! Free your mind, you are a slave to the matrix ‘control.’ The outside force has arrived. Free yourself of the matrix ‘control.’ Free first your mind. Trust me!! The body will follow. Remove fear, doubt, distrust, watch the change then.
He also allegedly told investigators that if they truly wanted to understand him and his motives then it was imperative that they watch The Matrix films. Malvo would eventually be convicted and sentenced to 6 consecutive life sentences, which would be overturned in 2017 due to his young age at the time of the crimes. His accomplice, 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad, was put to death by lethal injection on November 10, 2009.
Even more recently was in February of 2003, when Joshua Cooke, 19, of Faifax County, Virginia, picked up a 12-gauge shotgun, calmly walked up to his parents, and blasted his father 7 times and his mother twice, killing them. Practically right after the lifeless bodies fell to the floor, Cooke called police and matter-of-factly explained to them what he had done. He then calmly stood outside of his home unarmed and drinking a soda, and was brought in without any struggle. He would be described by authorities as compliant, soft-spoken, and well-behaved, hardly what one would imagine in a ruthless murderer who had just blown away both of his parents with a shotgun.
It would come to light that by all accounts Cooke had been absolutely obsessed with The Matrix series, dressing in trench coats similar to in the films, adorning his bedroom walls with Matrix posters, and watching the movies over and over again. Investigators would soon learn during questioning that this obsession extended into him thinking he actually lived in the Matrix, with one of the defense attorneys, Mani Fierro, later saying of Cooke:
After conducting an investigation, we concluded that our client was obsessed with the movie The Matrix. He did believe he was in a virtual reality world similar to ‘The Matrix.’ Defendant Cooke harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in the virtual reality of ‘The Matrix’ at the time of the alleged offenses and thus could not distinguish right from wrong.
This was the defense that they would initially go with, an insanity plea based on these delusions of living in a science fiction movie world, but this would not stand up to scrutiny for long. It was pointed out by the prosecution that Cooke had calmly called police to turn himself in after the crime, and had told the 911 operator that he was “definitely going to get the death penalty for this,” implying that he knew exactly what he was doing and was aware of the consequences and the clear difference between right and wrong. Ultimately Joshua Cooke entered a plea deal, and changed his plea to guilty for a sentence of 40 years in prison for the murder of his parents.
That anyone would try to pull of the defense that they were living in the world of The Matrix may seem profoundly bizarre, but this type of blurring the lines between reality and fiction as a defense in court is not unprecedented. The most famous example is undoubtedly the “Taxi Driver Defense” used by John Hinckley after his attempted assassination of then president Ronald Reagan. In court Hinckley claimed that he had been obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, just as Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle had been in the movie Taxi Driver, and that he had tried to kill the president as a means of gaining her attention. He insisted at the rather oddball trial that this obsession had blurred the lines between reality and fantasy, just as had happened in the movie, and it surprisingly all ended up working when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. One David Siegel, a professor at the New England School of Law, has said of Hinckley’s unorthodox and strange defense strategy:
It was easy for him to use the vehicle of the movie and all the associated connections the movie had in people’s minds to, in a shorthand way, explain his defense. He was able to, by putting himself in his fantasy world, explain relatively effectively his delusion. That resonated with a lot of people. They immediately understood what he was talking about, and obviously the jury believed him.
The use of such films as ways to shirk responsibility for heinous crimes seems to be a disturbing trend, and one which has seen much debate as to how much weight it should be given in a court of law. It seems that criminals are not above trying to latch onto whatever is popular at the moment to attempt to bolster their defense, whether they really believe it or not, but the fact is that these people were probably already in a sense predestined to commit their violent deeds even without such help from the pop culture they were inundated with. Although violent films can certainly give criminals a sense of justification for violent impulses or reinforce them in their minds, it has mostly been doubted that the movies are what generated these impulses in the first place. After all, out of all of the millions of people who have seen The Matrix films, very few of them have gone out and killed anyone. Dr. John Kennedy, director of the Institute for Psychiatry & Law at the University of Cincinnati has explained of this:
Someone who is already psychotic could use ‘The Matrix’ as evidence of an alternate reality. But even if ‘The Matrix’ never came out, they would have found something else, like the CIA or aliens.
In other words, these urges are already gestating there in some individuals, just waiting for a reason to creep out of the darkness. For these people, this, coupled with potential mental illness, can bring these sinister desires to the forefront, clawing to be let out. However, to what extent should the films be legally blamed for the bloody deeds that have been carried out in their name? Is this really enough to absolve someone of any real guilt and can it really be that the movie made them do it? Do these people even actually believe what they are saying at all, or are they trying to just shift the blame? It is hard to say, and the topic has been discussed and debated constantly. Insanity pleas, typically defined as when a defendant is shown to be mentally incapable in some way of distinguishing between right and wrong, are notoriously difficult to make stick, and in this day and age rarely work out well, with an estimated 1% actually proving to be successful in the end. As far as the “Matrix Defense” goes, one law professor at Boston College named Robert Bloom has given his opinion on the matter, saying:
It’s very hard to prove an insanity defense, even when you got all kinds of shrinks coming forward. Given how hard it is to prove it, the [‘Matrix’ defense] would seem to me to be a loser.
Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school, has added to this by saying:
Insanity is so very rarely successful. But it fascinates us all, it’s the kind of thing that is disproportionately reported. The correlation between the real world and the movies tends to be misrepresented. It doesn’t surprise me that more and more of these are coming up.
Yet people still continue to try it, perhaps because they really are insane or perhaps because they are merely trying to avoid going to prison, and coming up with more and more creative ways to do so. We may never truly know what drives these people to do what they do, to commit the depraved acts that they have decided to unleash upon the world. Maybe they are just disturbed in some sense. Maybe they are detached from reality and floating about in a waking dream. Perhaps they are just innately evil. Or maybe we are living in a simulation after all and we are the ones who are crazy? There is no way to be certain, and the Matrix Defense just adds to some of the more colorful legal issues facing us today.