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What is a Twinkie Defense?

The Twinkie Defense is a term coined from a 1979 murder trial where a defendant claimed junk food consumption impaired his judgment. It's not a legal defense in itself, but it highlights how diet can be used to argue diminished capacity. Intrigued? Discover how this defense challenges our notions of responsibility and the influence of diet on behavior.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A Twinkie Defense is a legal argument that a defendant in a criminal case was acting with diminished capacity due to a biological factor at the time of the crime. It is certainly possible for a biological factor to have an impact on someone's behavior, but in the case of a Twinkie Defense, the factor is usually deemed spurious. For example, someone who claims to have been seized with a fit of rage after drinking three cups of coffee might not be taken seriously in court, while someone who suffers from mental illness might be considered for a diminished capacity defense.

This slang term has its origins in the 1979 murder trial of Dan White, a former San Francisco Supervisor who shot the Mayor of San Francisco and another Supervisor in cold blood in 1978. Many people mistakenly believe that White's lawyers claimed that the popular snack food had driven White insane, leading him to shoot George Moscone and Harvey Milk. In fact, Twinkies were never actually specifically mentioned, although other snack foods were.

The Twinkie Defense argues that a diet of junk food can lead to depression and behavioral changes, including crime.
The Twinkie Defense argues that a diet of junk food can lead to depression and behavioral changes, including crime.

In the Dan White trial, snack food wasn't used to explain his behavior, but rather to illustrate it. The defense wanted to show the jury that White had been sinking into depression, and they thought that his increased junk food consumption in the months leading up to the murder was a solid piece of evidence that a former health-food nut had been experiencing some mental problems.

Gay panic, considered a Twinkie defense, is when the defendant claims that he or she was so offended or upset at the revelation that the victim was homosexual that a state of temporary insanity occurred.
Gay panic, considered a Twinkie defense, is when the defendant claims that he or she was so offended or upset at the revelation that the victim was homosexual that a state of temporary insanity occurred.

San Francisco newspapers were the first to popularize the idea of the “Twinkie Defense,” despite the fact that the term doesn't really apply to the trial which inspired it. Despite this, the term has caught on, and it can be seen used in reference to a variety of legal cases when the defense tries to argue for diminished capacity. "Twinkie Defense" also makes for good headline fodder, which might explain why this slang term has endured so long.

A related concept, transpanic, references claims made by defendants accused of murdering transsexual individuals. According to these defendants, the shock of discovery the true identity of the victim was so intense that they lashed out instinctively; “gay panic” is a similar claim involved in murders or assaults on homosexuals. Many activists feel that gay panic and transpanic are examples of a Twinkie Defense, arguing that people act out of anger in these cases, but that their capacity to judge right and wrong are not at all diminished.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Twinkie Defense?

The "Twinkie Defense" is a term that originated from the 1979 trial of Dan White, who was charged with the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. White's defense attorneys argued that his consumption of junk food, such as Twinkies, was symptomatic of his underlying depression, which had diminished his capacity for rational thought and led to his actions. This argument was used to support a defense of diminished capacity, rather than a direct causation between eating Twinkies and committing murder.

Was the Twinkie Defense successful?

While the term "Twinkie Defense" has become synonymous with an improbable legal strategy, it was not the central theme of Dan White's defense. However, the defense was successful in persuading the jury to convict White of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. This resulted in a lighter sentence of seven years and eight months, rather than a potential life sentence, indicating that the diminished capacity argument had an impact on the jury's decision.

Has the Twinkie Defense been used in other legal cases?

The "Twinkie Defense" is often cited in popular culture and media, but it is not a recognized legal defense and has not been a recurring strategy in other cases. The term is used colloquially to refer to any defense strategy that blames a criminal act on external factors, such as a defendant's diet or mental health, rather than direct intent to commit the crime. However, arguments related to diminished capacity or mental disorders are not uncommon in legal defenses.

What was the public reaction to the Twinkie Defense?

The public reaction to the Twinkie Defense was largely negative and incredulous. Many people were outraged that junk food consumption could be used as a mitigating factor in a double homicide case. The verdict led to widespread protests and what became known as the "White Night Riots" in San Francisco. The case also sparked a discussion about the legal system's handling of mental health issues and the concept of diminished capacity.

Did the Twinkie Defense lead to any changes in the law?

Following the trial and the public outcry, California voters responded by passing Proposition 8 in 1982, also known as the "Victims' Bill of Rights," which included a provision to abolish the diminished capacity defense. The California legislature also acted to restrict the use of diminished capacity pleas with the passage of Senate Bill 54. These changes reflected a shift in public sentiment towards a tougher stance on crime and a more limited use of mental health defenses in court.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

sweetPeas

@B707- I think that we have to take a closer look at the case of Dan White and others who have been found guilty of manslaughter instead of premeditated murder.

I think many psychology experts would agree that contributing factors, like quitting one's job, slovenly appearance, loss of energy, much less eating junk food, could be a cause of depression. It is questionable whether depression, alone, could cause diminished capacity and lead to murder.

In Dan White's case, some say there was enough evidence to show pre-meditation. It's difficult to show mental states as court evidence. I've heard scientists are looking into MRIs to show evidence of mental state. I wonder if they will ever be allowed in court?

B707

From the reading that I've done on the "twinkie defense," it seems that it was the press that started using the term and made it appear to be a defense used by lawyers to get their clients off with a lesser offense.

The murder case of Dan White described in the article was determined to be a case of diminished capacity, but the defendant's consumption of junk food was not the "cause" of his diminished capacity.

It was actually a number of things including, quitting his job, poor appearance, not keeping up on health (exercise, healthy food) that contributed to his growing depression and then diminished capacity,which led to the murders he committed.

The press had the whole thing really distorted - probably intentionally to get some rich subject matter to fill their newspapers and news programs.

MissDaphne

@ZsaZsa56 - I agree with you about the press. Really, the lawyers were just doing their job. It is a lawyer's responsibility to defend their client to the best of their ability. Sounds like the guy had change in behavior, which is always a big red flag for mental health.

Another case that a lot of people talk about is the old lady who spilled hot coffee on herself at McDonald's and won millions of dollars. What people don't realize is that she required *skin grafts,* for one thing, and for another suing was not her first idea. She contacted McDonald's about having her substantial medical bills covered - as apparently they had been covering other people's, quietly, for years - but they decided to refuse this time.

ZsaZsa56

@Ivan83 - I think more of the blame belongs on the press than the lawyers. While lawyers are entirely capable of turning our court system into a circus, it is often journalists who distort and manipulate the facts.

Just look at the example mentioned in the article. Lawyers were partly to blame, but it was the press who really sensationalized this aspect of the case. They were even the ones who came up with the Twinkie detail. To take another example, who was more responsible for the ridiculous OJ Simpsons case, lawyers or the press? I think it was the press and their constant coverage of the case. Justice gets perverted when voices from outside the courtroom begin to effect the proceedings of the case.

Ivan83

I saw that movie "Milk" a few years back and that story is where the infamous Twinkie defense comes from. I had never heard of it before but I was shocked to learn that it had been used with so much success in an American court.

I can appreciate that a diminished state of mind can contribute to a crime, but to suggest that junk food consumption is evidence of an extreme depressive stat is ridiculous. This is just another example of how lawyers can take the bare facts of a case and distort them to support whatever reality they choose. The Twinkie defense is a miscarriage of justice at best.

christym

Great article.

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    • The Twinkie Defense argues that a diet of junk food can lead to depression and behavioral changes, including crime.
      By: Photographee.eu
      The Twinkie Defense argues that a diet of junk food can lead to depression and behavioral changes, including crime.
    • Gay panic, considered a Twinkie defense, is when the defendant claims that he or she was so offended or upset at the revelation that the victim was homosexual that a state of temporary insanity occurred.
      By: Felix Mizioznikov
      Gay panic, considered a Twinkie defense, is when the defendant claims that he or she was so offended or upset at the revelation that the victim was homosexual that a state of temporary insanity occurred.