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What is a Twinkie Defense?

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.
The Twinkie Defense argues that a diet of junk food can lead to depression and behavioral changes, including crime.
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2014
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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.

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.

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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.

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sweetPeas
Post 6

@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
Post 5

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
Post 4

@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
Post 3

@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
Post 2

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
Post 1

Great article.

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