The Twinkie Defense: Politics, murder, and sponge cake?

Daniel James White eluded justice using a strange defense


What do mass produced pastries and getting away with murder have in common? More than you might think.

When Hostess went out of business in November of 2012 I reserved myself to the notion that I would never again enjoy the sweet convenience of an individually packaged fruit pie. Worse than that, I realized that my children wouldn’t understand a major plot point of Zombieland.

You can imagine my relief when my favorite mass produced pastries began reappearing on store shelves. More to the point, this pastry drama reminded me of a rather unique moment in criminal justice history: Dan White and the notorious ‘Twinkie Defense.’

On Monday, November 27th, 1978, Daniel James White climbed through a basement window of the San Francisco city hall with murder in mind. Seventeen days earlier, White had resigned his position as a supervisor for the City and County of San Francisco, a decision which he soon came to regret.

White requested reinstatement from Mayor George Moscone, who assured him of his pending reinstatement. White operated under that assumption until the morning of November 26th, when he was informed by a journalist that he would not be getting his job back. In fact, a press conference was being held the following day to announce White’s replacement.

Monday morning, after bypassing City Hall security by letting himself in through a basement window, Dan White headed to the mayor’s office on the second floor a revolver and additional rounds in his pocket. White asked to meet with the mayor and was quickly invited in by Mayor Mascone. It was then that White was officially informed of his replacement. White couldn’t handle the rejection. Mascone was shot four times: twice in the body, twice in the head.

Exiting through a back door, White left the Mayor’s office and, using his key, entered the supervisor’s offices on the west side of the building. There he entered the office of Supervisor Harvey Milk. White confronted Milk about his role in the plot to replace him. White put five rounds into Milk before leaving him dead on the office floor.

After fleeing City Hall, White met his wife and she walked with him to a police station where he surrendered to authorities.

When the case went to trial in May of 1979, Dan White’s defense was that of ‘diminished capacity.’ His attorney argued that because White was depressed, he lacked the mental capacity to form malice, intent or premeditation. Defense experts cited consumption of junk foods containing high levels of refined sugar, such as Twinkies and Coca Cola, as evidence of his depression. It was enough of an argument to sway the jury. White was convicted not of premeditated murder, but of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Contrary to popular belief, the defense never directly argued that Twinkies caused White’s diminished capacity. Instead, they used the tasty treats, as well as many other factors, as evidence to support White’s depressed state. Despite the facts, once the media got a hold of the story it would forever become known as the “Twinkie Defense.”

“What came of Dan White,” you ask? He was paroled after serving only five years of the lenient seven year sentence. One might imagine Dan sunbathing on a beach in the Caribbean, reveling in his dark victory. Unlike many stories of injustice, this one doesn’t end with our antagonist reaping the spoils of his evil deeds. On October 21st, 1985, Dan White took his own life by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. It seems, in the end, Dan White gave Harvey Milk and George Moscone the justice a jury of twelve couldn’t.

 

Sources:

Douglas, L. (2011). The dan white trial: An account. Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/milk/milkhome.html

Pogash, Carol. “Myth of the ‘Twinkie Defense’.”

                San Fransico Chronicle. 23 November 2003.

The People v. Daniel James White 117 Cal. App. 3d 270 (March 25, 1981)

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