What Is The Twinkie Defense?
mobi-logo

Posted on 15 Sep 2012 16:45

The subject of the so-called 'Twinkie defense' is a little off the beaten path for this site. I usually stick to more lighthearted matters, but the Twinkie Defense involved a convicted murderer. The defense itself, though, is quite silly, and it is a wonder that anybody ever had the gall to try it. It is even more surprising that it basically worked. Or did it?

In 1979, Daniel White admitted to murdering the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, and supervisor Harvey Milk. Harvey milk was the first openly gay city official in the U.S., and his life has become a symbol of the gay movement in San Francisco. A movie about his life, simply entitled Milk was produced 2008 and starred Sean Penn.

During the murder trial, White, a fellow city supervisor with Milk, and a former firefighter and policeman, claimed that his mental capacity had been impaired when he committed the murders, and therefore he should not be held responsible. This mental imbalance, said he, was the result of his obsessive consumption of sugary junk food, mostly Twinkies and Cokes, but also candy bars, cupcakes, etc. White had already given a full confession, but psychiatrists convinced the jury that his sugar habit diminished his ability to premeditate. Or so the popular legend has it.

This kind of argument is was known as a diminished responsibility argument, but while many of these can be quite silly, this one was seen as ridiculous. Despite this, he was found Not Guilty of first degree murder, and given a lesser sentence of only seven years, based on a conviction for manslaughter. The decision caused a riot in the streets of San Francisco, and White, once he was released on parole in 1984 after serving five years, was the most hated man in the city. He committed suicide on October 21, 1985.


closeup of Hostess Twinkies snack cakes, one split open

Is the Twinkie defense a myth?

closeup of Hostess Twinkies snack cakes, one split open

Is the Twinkie defense a myth?



Most of us know the basic defense here as the Insanity Defense. This is based on the concept of mens rea, or the ability to exercise proper criminal intent. Basically, if you are not able to think rationally and understand the difference between right and wrong, you cannot be found guilty. This is the basis of the familiar not guilty by reason of insanity defense, or NGRI Defense. During the early 1980's, when White was imprisoned and subsequently being released, many states had abolished the NGRI defense and substituted guilty, but mentally ill. The difference was that they would be civilly committed until they were cured and then would serve out their remaining time in jail. Many states have since followed by tightening their own controls.1 The Twinkie defense? Congress outlawed it in 1981. Although children might sometimes get a little hyper or irrational after eating too much sugar, there is no scientific evidence that eating too many sweets can turn you into a psychotic killer.

The Twinkie Defense has Been Blown out of Proportion

Despite all this, it should be noted that White's case was an extremely high profile one and heavily covered by the media, with the public hanging on every moment. The novelty of the defense caused it to receive a lot of public attention and to become part of popular culture. But the sensational nature of the trial had to do with much more than the Twinkie Defense. Was the murder strictly about homosexual intolerance and hate? Was it just politics? Was it revenge because White felt betrayed by Milk's decision to support something he objected to? And what most people do not know, because of the overshadowing sensationalism of the Twinkie debacle, is that White, having been elected to his supervisor seat in 1977, had suffered financial difficulties and subsequently withdrew from the position in November, 1978. Later, he changed his mind and asked Mayor Moscone to reappoint him to his seat. The mayor, at first, offered his support, but later withdrew it. All this was boiling during the trial. Afterwards, many people in the gay community felt that the jury had basically sanctioned gay murder, and that if White had only killed the mayor he would still be in jail.


Harvey Milk working at Mayor Moscone's desk

Harvey Milk working at Mayor Moscone's Desk
image by Daniel Nicoletta via wikimedia

Harvey Milk working at Mayor Moscone's desk

Harvey Milk working at Mayor Moscone's Desk
image by Daniel Nicoletta via wikimedia



The Twinkie Defense was nowhere near as central to the trial as most people think. In fact, according to journalist Carol Pougash and others, the word Twinkie was only mentioned once, in passing; and junk food in general was not a very significant part of the defense. It turns out that the real defense centered on White's diminished mental capacity in general and his bouts with mental illness. Yes, a psychiatrist was brought in but White's junk food habit was presented as a symptom of his depression, not as a cause. Even the chief defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, called it a "throwaway witness" with a "throwaway line." Those closest to the trial blamed the media for inventing the Twinkie Defense. The media, and the American public at large, is quick to latch onto labels.2

The idea that the defense trivialized the trial caused a lot of controversy. The silliness of the defense and the public's perception that is was a central part of 'scientific' evidence during the trial, caused more mistrust of scientific evidence being brought to trial for years to come. The 'Twinkie Defense' is a symbol of what is wrong with the court system. But, in fact, Twinkies had very little to do with the outcome of the trial, and it was a typical diminished capacity defense which actually occurred. The defense never actually proposed anything like a Twinkie Defense, and their mental health defense, although it may have been fabricated, was allowed by California law at the time. White's extreme eating habits were mentioned as evidence of his depression, since White was normally such a health-conscious man. Other aspects of White's behavior leading up to the murders, besides his poor diet, were also focused on, such as his slovenly dress and bouts of depression. Still, one of the defense's expert witnesses, a psychiatrist, did mention that "food stuffs with preservatives and sugar" may "cause you to act aggressively". However, this was nothing more than a personal theory and even the witness admitted that it has not gained acceptance, nor would it ever.3 This remark may well have been the fuse that ignited the Twinkie bomb, but it was never part of an overall strategy to claim that sugar consumption caused White to lose control and murder two people.


Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall on May 21, 1979 after voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan Whitle, murdered of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Trial origin of the myth of the "Twinkie Defense

Rioters outside San Franciso City Hall,
May 21, 1979 after White recieves Manslaugher Conviction

image by Daniel Nicoletta via wikimedia

Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall on May 21, 1979 after voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan Whitle, murdered of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Trial origin of the myth of the "Twinkie Defense

Rioters outside San Franciso City Hall,
May 21, 1979 after White recieves Manslaugher Conviction

image by Daniel Nicoletta via wikimedia



The idea that the jury was heavily influenced by the junk food angle, cannot be ascertained, but is extremely unlikely. The jury heard from other experts besides the one psychiatrist who brought up junk food, reportedly Dr. Martin Blinder. Other doctors, such as Dr. Donald Lunde and Dr. George Solomon told the jury various things about how White's mental condition rendered him incapable of premeditating the murders or even to 'think clearly' at all. The medical defense was basically that White was completely and utterly off his rocker and so didn't know what he was doing at any time, having acted purely on impulse that he himself was not in 'mental' control of. This was probably junk science, but not Twinkie science.

Nevertheless, both the junk science of so-called Twinkie Defense and the perception that the jury had minimized the seriousness of the crime because Milk was gay, led to the California voters, in 1982, almost overwhelmingly voting for a proposition, called Proposition 8, that severely limited the diminished capacity defense and the insanity defense.

Questions had already been being raised about mental capacity defenses long before this, and a wave of similar reform spread to other states and to Congress. One also cannot discount the influence of the John Hinckley, Jr. trial of 1982. Hinckley had attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Many Americans were absolutely outraged. The issues reached congress, and the federal statutes were amended in 1984 in the Insanity Defense Reform Act (IDRA).

These changes in mental defense laws, which followed so closely on the heels of the White case, have caused another myth to surface on the internet, possibly as the result of a misguided statement in one book about fast food, whose particular author I shall not embarrass. This myth is that Congress Outlawed the Twinkie Defense. Such an action in congress would certainly lend credence to the myth of its existence! But of course congress did no such thing. There never was a Twinkie Defense to outlaw. The reforms were far broader and more complex than this myth suggests.


References
1. Hagan, Frank E. Introduction to Criminology: Theories, Methods, and Criminal Behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008. 136-37.
2. Roth, Mitchel P. Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2011.
3. Gaines, Larry K., Roger LeRoy. Miller, and Larry Bassi. Criminal Justice in Action. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003.
© 2016 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.