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Behind the Twinkie Defense

Posted on Nov 17, 2012
ReneS (CC BY 2.0)

By Paul Krassner

The apparent demise of the Twinkie brings back memories for me.

A dozen police cars had been set on fire, which in turn set off their alarms, underscoring the angry shouts from 5,000 understandably angry gays. This was in 1979. I had been covering the trial of Dan White for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The ex-cop and supervisor had confessed to killing Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Dale Metcalf, a former Merry Prankster who had become a lawyer, told me how he happened to be playing chess with a friend, Steven Scherr, one of White’s attorneys. Metcalf had just read “Orthomolecular Nutrition” by Abram Hoffer. Metcalf questioned Scherr about White’s diet and learned that, while under stress, White would consume candy bars and soft drinks. Metcalf recommended the book to Scherr, suggesting the author as an expert witness. After all, in his book, Hoffer revealed a personal vendetta against doughnuts, and White had once eaten five doughnuts in a row.

Hoffer didn’t testify, but his influence permeated the courtroom. White’s defense team presented that biochemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on compulsive gobbling down of sugar-filled junk food. Psychiatrist Martin Blinder testified that on the night before the killings, White “just sat there in front of the TV set, binging on Twinkies.” Another psychiatrist stated, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”

In my notebook, I scribbled “Twinkie defense,” and wrote about it in my next report. On the 25th anniversary of that double execution, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “During the trial, no one but well-known satirist Paul Krassner—who may have coined the phrase ‘Twinkie defense’—played up that angle.” And so it came to pass that a pair of political assassinations was transmuted into voluntary manslaughter.

And I got caught in the post-verdict riot. The police were running amok in an orgy of indiscriminate sadism, swinging their clubs wildly and screaming, “Get the fuck outta here, you fuckin’ faggots, you motherfuckin’ cocksuckers!” I was struck with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee and I fell to the ground. Another cop came charging at me and made a threatening gesture with his billy club. When I tried to protect my head, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side of my ribs. Oh, God, the pain! The dwarf in the clown costume had finally caught up with me, and his electric cattle prod was stuck between my ribs.

At the hospital, X-rays indicated that I had a fractured rib and pneumothorax, a punctured lung. The injuries affected my posture and my gait, and I gradually began to develop an increasingly unbalanced walk, so that my right foot would come down hard on the ground with each step. My whole body felt twisted, and my right heel was in constant pain.

I limped the gamut of therapists—from an orthodox orthopedic surgeon who gave me a shot of cortisone in my heel to ease the pain, to a specialist in neuromuscular massage who wondered if the cop had gone to medical school because he knew exactly where to hit me with his billy club, to a New Age healer who put one hand on my stomach, held the receptionist’s hand with the other and asked her whether I should wear a brace. The answer was yes. I decided to get a second opinion—perhaps from another receptionist.


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.  One even testified that, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”

The Twinkie was invented in 1930 by James Dewar, who described it as “the best darn-tootin’ idea I ever had.”  He got the idea of injecting little cakes with sugary cream-like filling and came up with the name while on a business trip, where he saw a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes. “I shortened it to make it a little zippier for the kids,” he said.

In the wake of the Twinkie defense, a representative of the ITT-owned Continental Baking Company asserted that the notion that overdosing on the cream-filled goodies could lead to murderous behavior was “poppycock” and “crap”—apparently two of the artificial ingredients in Twinkies, along with sodium pyrophosphate and yellow dye—while another representative of ITT couldn’t believe “that a rational jury paid serious attention to that issue.”

Nevertheless, some jurors did.  One remarked after the trial that it sounded like Dan White had hypoglycemia.”  Doug Schmidt’s closing argument became almost an apologetic parody of his own defense.  He told the jury that White did not have to be “slobbering at the mouth” to be subject to diminished capacity.  Nor, he said, was this simply a case of “Eat a Twinkie and go crazy.”



When Superior Court Judge Walter Calcagno presented the jury with his instructions, he assured them access to the evidence, except that they would not be allowed to have possession of White’s gun and his ammunition at the same time.  After all, these deliberations can get pretty heated.  The judge was acting like a concerned schoolteacher offering Twinkies to students but withholding the cream filling to avoid any possible mess.

Each juror originally had to swear devotion to the criminal justice system,  a system that had allowed for a shrewd defense attorney’s transmutation of a double political execution into the White Sugar Murders.  On the walls of the city, graffiti cautioned, “Eat a Twinkie—Kill a Cop!”

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