||On 27 November 1978, twenty-three years ago today, San Francisco city supervisor Dan White took his gun to the City Hall (where Jo and I were married earlier this year). There he shot dead both the Mayor, George Moscone, and his fellow supervisor, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to a significant office anywhere in the United States, and whose great political achievement is memorialised on this page (from where I took these fine images) and in the daily political activity of the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club.Notoriously, in the trial which followed, White was acquitted of first-degree murder after inaugurating the “Twinkie Defense”: eating too much sugary junkfood had, he claimed, made him temporarily insane. He served a little less than six years for voluntary manslaughter, and killed himself months after his release in 1985.||
Nick wrote [2.12.2001]: A bit more background on the “Twinkie Defense”: not *quite* the spin you (and others) were putting on it, from snopes2.com:
Neither White nor his defense team ever claimed that White’s consumption of junk food had wrought psychological or physiological changes in White that caused him to act in way inconsistent with his “normal” behavior when he shot George Moscone and Harvey Milk. White’s defense was that he had been suffering from a long-standing and untreated depression that diminished his capacity to distinguish right from wrong, and thus he was not capable of the premeditation required to support a charge of first degree murder. Dr. Martin Blinder was called as a witness by the defense to testify that the conversion of the previously health-conscious White to a diet of Twinkies and other junk foods was evidence of his depression. This testimony was similar to offering evidence that the habitual wearing of torn and dirty clothes by someone who had previously always been a snappy dresser was a sign that that person was suffering from depression. Nobody who paid attention would claim that such testimony asserted that bad clothing had caused the defendant’s depression, but that is essentially what happened in White’s case. Junk food was used as evidence that White was depressed; White’s depression was used to establish grounds for a successful diminished capacity plea; and therefore White was judged incapable of the premeditation required for a murder conviction.
When the diminished capacity defense was successful and White was convicted of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, an outraged media and public skipped the middlemen. White’s depression wasn’t mentioned; instead we were told he had claimed that “Twinkies made him do it.” (Dr. Blinder did suggest excessive sugar could have aggravated a chemical imbalance in White’s brain, but that comment was offered only as a parenthetical remark during Blinder’s testimony about White’s depression. It was not in any way a substantive part of White’s defense.)
Jo wrote [2.12.2001]: The crucial part is the bit in parentheses. The reason that we here in San Francisco talk about the Twinkie Defense is that the perception (contemporary and in retrospect) is that this observation was an important factor in the verdict, whether or not it was an official part of the defense case. I agree that the events have become simplified through mass consumption, but I am sure we all agree that factors can influence a trial without being spelt out by the lawyers – witness the differential conviction rates of whites and people of colour. Perhaps it should be referred to as the “Twinkie Argument”, but it was made, and it seemed at least to matter. By the way, this website article has no by-line and only cites (later) newspaper articles as sources. It quotes other (contemporary) newspaper reports in order to dismiss them, presumably in the light of the first set of articles. There is no argument as to why we should believe a Newsweek reporter as opposed to the Chronicle reporters. (I note, by the way, that Randy Shilts did not have access to records of the trial when he wrote The Mayor of Castro Street: presumably these would be the only source which could really trump the newspaper reports dismissed on this website. Maybe the Newsweek reporter had access to these; the article does not make it clear).
By another way, I think that this website plays a rather banal game by describing a ‘myth’ in terms that the writer can then easily disprove, without giving any evidence for that particular formulation of the ‘myth’. So, in this case, I have never actually heard the version of the Twinkie Defense that says that Dan White’s lawyers actually made it part of the official defense, only that it was an influential argument used at the trial. But that version is less easy to disprove, so the website sets up a straw man.