Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Insanity Defense

Twinkies as a Defense

"Law is a bottomless pit!"
John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) English physician.

Mayor George Moscone & Harvey Milk (CORBIS)
Mayor George Moscone & Harvey Milk
(CORBIS)

In a notorious murder trial that took place in San Francisco in 1979, a former police officer, Dan White, was accused of the murders of Mayor George Moscone and an administrative aide named Harvey Milk. That White committed these murders was never in dispute, since he shot both men at mid-day inside City Hall. But at trial the defense claimed that White was suffering from a mental lapse brought on by a series of events in his life that left him temporarily insane. Psychologists who testified at his murder trial postulated that White was not responsible for the murders, even though he carried extra ammunition with him to City Hall and reloaded between killings. His attorney said that a depression put him into an altered state that changed his behavior to such a degree, that he began to eat junk food. Something he had never done before, according to his defense.

Dan White in custody (CORBIS)
Dan White in custody (CORBIS)

One psychiatrist testified: "I think that on the day of the crimes he really had no meaningful, rational capacity to carefully weigh the considerations for and against and rationally decide on a course of action. He couldn't think carefully about what he was going to do" (Winslade, 1983, p. 47). Although it was later called the "Twinkie Defense" by the local press, the correlation between junk food and White's behavior was never made at the trial. This was a falsehood that has been repeated many times in hundreds of press accounts of the trial. White's attorney's offered evidence that the previously health conscious defendant began to eat Twinkies and other junk food as a result of his severe depression. But the characterization stuck and the Dan White case will always be remembered as the time junk food caused a man to go crazy and commit murder.

White was convicted of manslaughter and, as a result, he received a much lighter sentence as opposed to a 1st degree murder conviction. The decision ignited riots in San Francisco's gay community. Of course, this type of defense is not as common as the press believes, but it demonstrates what can be done under the elusive definitions of the Durham Rule and "diminished capacity" defenses. Eventually, the Durham rule was abandoned in favor of the "substantial capacity test." This criteria was, in effect, a combination of the M'Naghten Rule and the Irresistible Impulse test. Under M'Naghten alone, a defendant was required to show a complete failure to distinguish between right and wrong. This compromise, at least to some, seemed acceptable to the courts. For Dan White though, the "diminished capacity" defense worked. He spent 5 years in prison for a double murder and was paroled in 1985. A few months later, Dan White committed suicide.

 

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