RIGHTING THE WRONGS: The “Twinkie Defense”

Growing up in the 1970s, vicious rumors abounded about Twinkies snack cakes. If one ate 10,000 Twinkies, so the schoolyard story went, you’d go crazy and kill someone! The story changed a bit later on: if one ate 10,000 Twinkies, he or she would be considered “legally insane” in the state of Georgia (or California, or Texas, or…). This later rumor was obviously a riff on the old “seven hits of acid makes you insane” urban legend. But where did the story come from in the first place? Why Twinkies? And did it have any basis in fact?

Twinkie

Actually, the story was born out of a great tragedy.

Daniel James White was born in Los Angeles on September 2, 1946. The second of nine children, he was expelled from Riordan High School for violent behavior in his junior year. He subsequently transferred to Woodrow Wilson High School, where he graduated as valedictorian. After a stint in Vietnam in the Army, White worked as a security guard at a school in Anchorage for a couple of years. He then moved to San Francisco and became a police officer. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he quit the SFPD after squealing on a fellow officer who beat a handcuffed black suspect.

White transferred to the San Francisco Fire Department, where he became a hero after rescuing a woman and her baby from the seventh floor of a burning apartment building. White used this fame to get elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (San Francisco has a unified city-county government, so a “supervisor’ is the equivalent of a city councilman and county commissioner). Although a Democrat, White was pretty conservative, and often defended his mostly white, middle-class district against what he called “homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics”.

However, this was San Francisco after all, and White was often forced to work with Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and fellow supervisor (you might remember him from Milk, the 2008 film starring Sean Penn). At first, the two got along decently enough. But then, in April 1978, the Catholic Church announced plans to build a facility for juvenile offenders in White’s district. White was vehemently opposed to the facility, while Milk supported the facility with almost as much vigor.

From that point on, White and Milk seemed unable to agree on anything. Relations between White and Milk became so bad that White resigned on November 10, 1978. He was having money troubles, too. Although officially still a fire fighter, White was prohibited by law from collecting his firefighter’s salary while serving as a supervisor, and the supervisor position didn’t pay enough to make ends meet. While serving on the board, White opened a baked potato stand at Pier 39, a popular tourist destination, but it quickly failed.

Almost completely broke, White attempted to “reverse” his resignation on November 14th. Since he’d officially resigned from office, White’s supporters urged him to ask mayor George Moscone to appoint him to his old position until an election could be held. Moscone agreed to the request at first, but changed his mind at the urging of Milk and others.

On November 27, 1978, an enraged White climbed through a window at City Hall to avoid setting off the newly-installed metal detectors. He went to Moscone’s office to beg for his job back. When the mayor refused, White pulled out a gun and shot him four times. White then walked over to Milk’s office, shooting him five times, the last two bullets fired with the barrel directly against Milk’s skull.

At White’s trial – and this is where the Twinkies come in – his defense argued that White was suffering “diminished capacity” due to “extreme depression”. The defense team gave several examples to show how depressed he was. A normally loving husband, White all but ignored his wife in the weeks leading up to the murder. He normally presented himself as clean-cut and fashion conscious, but before the murder he’d let himself go. Most importantly, White had changed from an exercise-obsessed health food fanatic to someone who drank soft drinks and ate junk food almost exclusively.

This makes perfect sense, right? After all, who wouldn’t be concerned if a close friend or family member suddenly started acting out of character? And what examples would you give to a medical professional or police officer about that loved one? “Jim used to love football, but he doesn’t even watch games any more” or “She was a vegetarian, but now she eats nothing but hot dogs!”

Although Twinkies were never mentioned by name in court, a reporter for a local newspaper termed it the “Twinkie defense” and the name stuck. But, as the story spread through pop culture, its meaning changed. White’s obsession with junk food somehow went from being a symptom of his depression to the cause of it. So now, three decades later, there are still people out there who believe that eating too many Twinkies will cause you to go on a murder spree… when that’s not what White’s lawyers meant at all.

White’s story, by the way, is nothing but sadness.

As mentioned, his legal team argued that White was suffering from “diminished capacity”, which would alter the charges from murder to voluntary manslaughter. To do that, they had to prove that the killings were not premeditated. And, to prove that, witnesses were brought in who testified that workers often climbed through the same window at City Hall to avoid the long lines at the metal detectors. Police officers stated that several city officials carried guns in City Hall, and that White probably carried the extra ammunition as a habit from his days as a police officer. The jury, convinced that White didn’t plan the killings in advance, found him guilty of manslaughter, and White was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The local gay community, outraged, started what would become known as the White Night Riots. This led to the election of Dianne Feinstein as mayor. She appointed a gay-friendly police chief, who diffused tensions in the city. Feinstein would be elected to the US Senate in 1992, a post she still holds.

California lawmakers, aghast at the decision in White’s case, eliminated the “diminished capacity” provision in state law shortly thereafter.

White served five years in Soledad State Prison. He was paroled on January 7, 1984. State officials, fearing for his safety, moved him to Los Angeles to serve a year’s probation. When the year was up, White decided to return to San Francisco. Mayor Feinstein told the public about White’s plans, and asked him to not return. He did anyway, in hopes of rebuilding his family. But his wife filed for divorce shortly after his return.

White, despondent once again, attached a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and committed suicide on October 21, 1985. He is buried in a veteran’s grave at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno.

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