The Defensible ‘Twinkie Defense’

No one (and certainly not me) ever testified that Twinkies turn you into a killer or that it did so in White’s case — doubtless if someone had offered that testimony, what jury would believe it (let alone twelve)?
Dr. Martin Blinder

The legal system is certainly not free from justifiable mockery, but what frustrates me is what people will mock despite not understanding.

The 1978 killings of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, and subsequent trial of their killer Dan White, caused the violent White Night Riots and more than three decades of the misleading and misunderstood term “The Twinkie Defense”.

Newspapers and commentators mocked White, his legal team, and the testifying psychologists for arguing that eating too many Twinkies contributed to the murders. Hostess’s 2012 bankruptcy encouraged even more tongue-in-cheek references to the defense, though it has been a constant meme since its creation:

  • ABC News in 2000, reporting on the stabbing of forensic psychologist Dr. Martin Blinder who testified for Dan White, recalled: “Blinder testified that a junk food diet of Twinkies and Coca-Cola contributed to White’s erratic behavior”.
  • Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect remembered similarly: “Lawyers for White claimed that he overdosed on Twinkies, and was acting under the delusional influence of a sugar high”.
  • In The Huffington Post, author Paul Krassner, who covered the trial in 1979, revisited the case by saying: “White’s defense team presented that bio-chemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on compulsive gobbling down of sugar-filled junk-food snacks”.

Even lawyers who should know better are not above erroneously explaining the Twinkie Defense:

  • Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute says of White’s attorneys: “They claimed that a diet of only junk food had created a chemical imbalance in White’s brain (the “Twinkie defense”)”.
  • Nolo’s Plain English Legal Dictionary has an entry on the Twinkie Defense, where it explains “White claimed that the sugar high resulting from eating “Twinkie” cupcakes made it impossible for him to form the intent necessary for a murder conviction”.

The Real ‘Twinkie Defense’

If I found a cure for cancer, they’d still say I was the guy who invented ‘the Twinkie defense’.
Dr. Martin “Twinkie Shrink” Blinder

The difference between murder – what White was charged with – and voluntary manslaughter – what White was convicted of – is premeditation. If you consider that a crime’s punishment is proportional to a crime’s ‘badness’ (a defeatable presumption if you consider the sentencing guidelines for crack and powdered cocaine possession, but I digress), applying a harsher sentence to a premeditated murder makes sense. Someone who coldly calculates a killing is certainly more of a societal harm then a spurned lover who momentarily snaps, despite the victims being equally dead.

So since White was not contesting that he killed Milk and Moscone, the only question at trial was whether the killings were premeditated.

White’s legal team did not argue that White was motivated to kill by a sugary diet, but simply that his recent increase in junk food consumption was one of many symptoms of his depression. Along with this single symptom was evidence that White, who normally clean-cut and health-conscious, quit his job, fought with his wife, and began dressing slovenly.

The Twinkie Defense is not that White ate Twinkies and went crazy, but rather “look how many Twinkies he ate, he must have been crazy!”

Of course, despite this distinction, I join many people who still believe the jury was in error. Dan White went into City Hall with a loaded weapon and evaded metal detectors by entering through a basement window. I don’t share the jury’s reasonable doubt, but I also don’t share the jury’s 1979 mentality, where any excuse could justify killing a moderately tolerated gay man and his political ally, especially if the killer is a respected police officer and family man.

The Twinkie Defense is silly to be sure, but it should be criticized for the appropriate legal and historical reasons. Don’t become silly yourself by fuming at a Twinkie straw man.

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