Sunday, 23 November 2003
Legal folklore & the "Twinkie defense"
The law has engendered a lot of interesting folklore through the millennia — usually concerning the content of the law. There is a widespread belief, for example, that most American states permit the use of deadly force to defend property. Wrong! (Whether the law should permit this is way beyond the scope of this blog.)
The myth of the "Twinkie defense" and the case of Dan White rank among the most bizarre in American law.
In 1978 Mr. White killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and a homosexual city Supervisor, Harvey Milk, and he was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter. White looked guilty of first-degree murder in the press, so his conviction on the lesser charge engendered an enormous public outcry. Misinformation began to circulate almost immediately after the case was resolved, despite the ready availability of debunkage. Almost none of the debating public properly understood the basis for White's defense. Even worse, the state of California enacted dramatic changes to its criminal law — based, at least in part, on the myth — soon thereafter.
Mr. White suffered from depression, and his attorneys argued that this condition reduced his capacity to form the requisite state of mind to have committed the crime of first-degree murder. A great weight of psychological research and legal authority supported this argument. The defense called several expert witnesses to the stand to provide corroborating evidence, and one of these experts made a passing reference to junk food. The night before the killings, White had eaten foods high in sugar, and the expert briefly stated that a sudden infusion of sugar might have contributed to White's loss of control. White's attorney also mentioned this fact in his closing argument; but it was, at best, a peripheral point in the case.
When the jury refused to convict White of murder, the public was outraged, and the stage was set for one of the great legal myths in Anglo-American history to take hold — the myth of the "Twinkie defense." It seemed plausible, to many people, that White's attorneys had hoodwinked the jury into believing that Twinkies had made him do it. This was never part of the defense team's trial strategy, and jurors from the case who have granted interviews over the years have called it bunk in no uncertain terms. Nonetheless, the Twinkie defense continues to enjoy widespread credulity.
The "Twinkie defense" is so ingrained in our culture that it appears in law dictionaries, in sociology textbooks, in college exams and in more than 2,800 references on Google. Only a few of them call it what it is: a myth. [...]