The Myth of the Twinkie Defense

Harvey Milk, left, and George Moscone

Harvey Milk, left, and George Moscone

The recent bankruptcy of Hostess, makers of Wonder Break and the famous dessert cake Twinkies, means the end of two famous brands. Since the news was announced thousands of people have crowded stores in search of Twinkies, intent on storing up the sugary snacks. The end of Twinkies also brings to mind a tragic and famous moment in U.S. history, one that underscores how sometimes the myth is more influential than the facts.

 On November 27, 1978, former San Francisco city supervisor Dan White climbed through a window of city hall and walked to the office of Mayor George Moscone and fatally shot him two times. Then he reloaded his handgun and walked down the hall to the office of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor, and shot him to death. White was quickly taken into custody.

 At his trial White’s defense team argued that White had been depressed at the time of the shootings. A psychiatrist called on by the defense to testify pointed to several changes in White’s usually impeccable appearance and habits as evidence of his clinical depression. One of the changes in behavior mentioned, almost in passing, was that the once health conscious White had begun eating large amounts of sugary snacks. He offered these changes and several others as evidence of White’s “reduced capacity,” which the defense argued was a mitigating circumstance that meant he was not guilty of first-degree murder but of a lesser offense.

 After several days of deliberations the jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Immediately there were protests and the violence of what came to be called the “White Night Riots.”

 The so-called “Twinkie Defense” became an instant sensation. However, the psychiatrist or defense attorney had never mentioned Twinkies. Precisely who first used the phrase “Twinkie Defense” is not clear. Some say it was a local satirist, while others say it was local newspaper columnist Herb Caen. Regardless of who first penned the phrase the words were never uttered in the courtroom. But that hasn’t stopped the “Twinkie Defense” from becoming an infamous example of how outrageous arguments have been used to free obviously guilty defendants.

 Harvey Milk’s life as a trailblazer for the rights of gay Americans is not overshadowed by his violent death or the myths that have sprung up around Dan White’s trial. Today he is remembered as one of the principal figures in the Gay Rights Movement. To learn more about his life and contributions to the progress of civil rights check out Morgan Reynolds’ biography of Milk, No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk by David Aretha (9781599351292 )

John Riley


Published in: on December 6, 2012 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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