Can a man consume so much junk food that he is driven to commit murder? Can he be held responsible for the crimes he committed while under the influence … of sugar? These may sound like ridiculous questions, but they are the legacy of the “Twinkie Defense,” a myth created in 1978, following the tragic deaths of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Moscone and Milk were shot and killed by Dan White, another Supervisor of the City of San Francisco. These high-profile killings brought along a ton of media attention, which latched onto the idea that White had been so hopped up on sugar from eating Twinkies that he lost the ability for rational thought when committing the murders. The defense was actually trying to prove that White suffered from depression, and that his depressive state the week of the killings left him with a diminished capacity which caused him to act irrationally.
White’s defense wanted to prove that he was incapable of deliberating the killings of Moscone and Milk, and instead acted in the heat of passion. Their support for this theory included White’s diet leading up to the shooting, which consisted of high amounts of junk food. The press jumped on this idea, and began to spread the word that White was crazed by a sugar high when he shot the politicians. The jury was influenced by the theory, and White was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only sentenced to five years in prison.
Today, the “Twinkie defense” is commonplace legal slang. It typically refers to a defendant’s claim that they suffered from a mental impairment, exacerbated by the use of a substance, at the time of the crime. It is usually added on as a last-ditch effort to receive sympathy, shift the blame, or prove diminished capacity.
The “Twinkie defense” was invoked by the defense for Dr. Louis Chen, a Seattle physician who was charged with murdering his partner and infant son. Chen’s attorneys claimed that he had a history of depression and paranoia, which was combined with the excessive use of cough syrup and self-medication. This combination apparently led to a psychotic break which caused Chen to carry out the killings.
Another example is the case of Kenneth Sands, an Oregon bus driver who was accused of sexually assaulting several girls. Sands claimed that his unusually high usage of caffeine at the time led to his erratic behavior. He claimed that he did not normally act this way and was influenced by an extreme caffeine dosage.
As with many other cases which invoke the “Twinkie defense,” both Chen and Sands were found guilty of their crimes, and sentenced accordingly.