Behind "the Twinkie Defense"

The reporter who coined the infamous phrase in the Guardian looks back at the White trial
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Defenseless

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who wanted to decriminalize marijuana, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in America. November also marks the release of a film about the case titled Milk. Although a former policeman, homophobic Dan White, had confessed to the murders, he pleaded not guilty. I covered his trial for the Bay Guardian.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I said "Thank you" to the sheriff's deputy who frisked me before I could enter the courtroom. However, this was a superfluous ritual, since any journalist who wanted to shoot White was prevented from doing so by wall-to-wall bulletproof glass.

Defense attorney Douglas Schmidt did not want any pro-gay sentiment polluting the verdict, but he wasn't allowed to ask potential jurors if they were gay, so instead he would ask if they had ever supported controversial causes--"like homosexual rights, for instance." One juror came from a family of cops -- ordinarily, Schmidt would have craved for him to be on this jury -- but the man mentioned, "I live with a roommate and lover."

Schmidt phrased his next question: "Where does he or she work?"

The answer began, "He"--and the ball game was already over--"works at Holiday Inn."

Through it all, White simply sat there as though he had been mainlining epoxy glue. He just stared directly ahead, his eyes focused on the crack between two adjacent boxes on the clerk's desk, Olde English type identifiying them as "Deft" and "Pltff" for defendant and plaintiff. He did not testify. Rather, he told his story to several psychiatrists hired by the defense, and they repeated those details in court.

At a press conference, Berkeley psychiatrist Lee Coleman denounced the practice of psychiatric testimony, labeling it as "a disguised form of hearsay."

* * *

J. I. Rodale, health food and publishing magnate, once claimed in an editorial in his magazine, Prevention, that Lee Harvey Oswald had been seen holding a Coca-Cola bottle only minutes after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He concluded that Oswald was not responsible for the killing because his brain was confused. He was a "sugar drunkard." Rodale, who died of a heart attack during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show -- in the midst of explaining how good nutrition guarantees a long life -- called for a full-scale investigation of crimes caused by sugar consumption.

In a surprise move, Dan White's defense team presented a similar bio-chemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on compulsive gobbling down of sugar-filled junk-food snacks. This was a purely accidental attack. Dale Metcalf, a former member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters who had become a lawyer, told me how he happened to be playing chess with Steven Scheer, an associate of Dan White's attorney.

Metcalf had just read Orthomolecular Nutrition by Abram Hoffer. He questioned Scherr about White's diet and learned that, while under stress, White would consume candy bars and soft drinka. Metcalf recommended the book to Scherr, suggesting the author as an expert witness. In his book, Hoffer revealed a personal vendetta against doughnuts, and White had once eaten five doughnuts in a row.

During the trial, one psychiatrist stated that, on the night before the murders, while White was "getting depressed about the fact he would not be reappointed [as supervisor], he just sat there in front of the TV set, bingeing on Twinkies." In my notebook, I immediately scribbled "the Twinkie defense," and wrote about it in my next report.

This was the first time that phrase had been used, and it was picked up by the mainstream media.

In court, White just sat there in a state of complete control bordering on catatonia, as he listened to an assembly line of psychiatrists tell the jury how out of control he had been.

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