Understanding the So-Called ‘Twinkie’ Defense

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Photo by John Morgan via Flickr

“The devil made me do it.”

You might not be surprised to hear a defendant in a criminal case make that claim. But what about, “Junk food made me do it?” Or cough medicine? Or caffeine?

Although not especially common, these kinds of arguments are still made in criminal cases. In fact, there’s even a name for such claims—the so-called “Twinkie defense.”

The phrase “Twinkie defense” was coined by the media in 1978 in coverage of the trial of Dan White, who was charged with murder for the shooting deaths of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. However, the Twinkie defense is really a myth.

As explained in the San Francisco Gate, the defense presented evidence that White suffered from mental illness, including depression. A psychiatrist testified that White’s excessive consumption of junk food—including Twinkies—exacerbated his symptoms and was proof of his depressed state.

But the defense never claimed that eating snack cakes put White in a sugar-induced frenzy that drove him to kill Moscone and Milk—it was the press that pushed that angle. Rather, the actual defense in the case was that White suffered from “diminished capacity” and acted “in the heat of passion.”

The jury apparently bought this argument and convicted White of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.

Despite the truth, the term “Twinkie defense” has become stuck in the public’s imagination and the media’s vocabulary, essentially being used as shorthand for any defense in which the accused blames the consumption or use of some substance for his or her actions.

Since 1978, variations of the Twinkie defense continue to be made, expanding beyond junk food to include other substances.

For example, Matthew Phelps, an aspiring pastor in North Carolina, was recently accused of stabbing his wife Lauren to death. He says that he woke up to find her covered in blood on the floor but couldn’t remember what happened that night. Although Phelps believes that he attacked his wife, he claims that the cough medicine he took to help him sleep caused him to black out. On Sept. 25, 2017, Phelps was indicted on first degree murder charges.

Blaming cough medicine seems to be a fairly popular version of the Twinkie defense.

In 2011, Dr. Louis Chen was accused of murdering his partner Eric Cooper and their two-year-old son. His defense: cough-syrup induced psychosis. That is, his attorneys argued that at the time of the murders, Chen was suffering from mental health issues such as depression and paranoia, which were exacerbated by his use of over-the-counter cough medicine. (Chen ultimately pleaded guilty.)

Also in 2011, James McVay broke into the house of Maybelle Schein and stabbed her to death. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder charges. At sentencing, the defense said that the night before the murder, McVay had mixed alcohol with cough syrup, which caused him to suffer hallucinations. In addition, the defense claimed that McVay suffered from mental illness as well as alcohol and drug abuse issues.

The jury imposed the death penalty, but McVay committed suicide in 2014.

Similarly, Shane Tilley stabbed a friend to death while high on cough medicine. At trial, a doctor testified that he suffered from a schizoaffective disorder. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a treatment facility.

Modern versions of the Twinkie defense aren’t limited to cough medicine.

Kenneth Sands, a bus driver in Washington, claimed that consuming too much caffeine compelled him to sexually molest five women. He argued that he suffered from a bi-polar disorder and that too much caffeine caused a psychotic episode, driving him to act out of character. He was sentenced to five months’ prison.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was blamed for James Huberty’s 1984 rampage in a San Ysidro McDonald’s, which left 21 people dead and 15 wounded. Huberty, who had a long history of mental illness, was killed by the police who responded to the scene.

Huberty’s widow and children unsuccessfully sued his former employer and McDonald’s, claiming that the MSG in its food, which Huberty regularly ate, and several heavy metals he was exposed to as a welder “combined to cause the violent outburst.”

These kinds of claims may seem like self-serving, desperate attempts to avoid responsibility for horrible acts of violence. But there may be some validity to them.

For instance, many cough medicines contains the ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM). When taken in high doses, DXM can cause mania and hallucinations, and result in assault, suicide and homicide, says one study. Because cough syrup containing DXM is easy to get, it has become a popular recreational drug among teenagers.

In addition, a study published in Injury Prevention in 2012 found a “significant and strong association” between soda consumption and violence in Boston teens. Specifically, the researchers found that adolescents who drank more than five cans of non-diet soft drinks per week were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon and to have been violent with peers, family members and dates.

So is it so crazy to believe there may be similar connections between the use or consumption of other substances and violent crimes?

It’s important to note that aside from asserting some form of the Twinkie defense, there’s another common thread to these cases: nearly all of the defendants had underlying mental health issues. In fact, the defense in such cases is typically that the consumption of a particular substance combined with the mental health issues to result in violent behavior.

Thus, the substances in questions aren’t solely blamed for the resulting crimes. In other words, no one is claiming that if you eat a Twinkie or take some cough medicine, you’ll snap and murder anyone who happens to be near you.

In reality, the Twinkie defense is a form of diminished capacity defense. When a defendant argues diminished capacity, she’s claiming that a mental condition, emotional distress or other factor prevented her from fully understanding the nature of the crime she committed.

The purpose of this argument is not to exonerate the defendant but to negate the element of intent and thus result in a conviction for a lesser crime, i.e., manslaughter instead of murder.

In short, no one has ever really blamed bright yellow, cream-filled snack cakes for a murder. But defendants have blamed other substances, combined with underlying mental health issues, for their violent actions and as a plea for leniency.

Robin Barton

As long as defendants continue to make such arguments, it’s unlikely that the term “Twinkie defense” will disappear, despite the truth of its origins. If nothing else, the persistent use of this term shows the power of the media and its influence on the criminal justice system.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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