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Behind the Infamous Twinkie Defense

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In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece about San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, Josh Getlin perpetuated a myth when he wrote that Dan White "shot the mayor four times, twice in the head as he lay on the floor of his private back office. Standing astride the body, he reloaded his .38-caliber revolver and then raced down a long hallway toward the supervisors chambers. There he demanded to meet with [Harvey] Milk..."

In 1979, I covered White's trial for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Prosecutor Tom Norman told the jury that White had reloaded his gun in the mayor's office, but, according to White's confession, taped shortly after the double murder:

Q. "And do you know how many shots you fired [at Moscone]?"

A. "Uh -- no, I don't, I don't, I out of instinct when I, I reloaded the gun, ah -- you know, it's just the training I had, you know."

Q. "Where did you reload?"

A. "I reloaded in my office when, when I was -- I couldn't out in the hall."

Which made it slightly less instinctive. Norman sought to prove that the murders had been premeditated, yet he ignored this evidence of premeditation in White's own confession. If White's reloading of his gun had been, as he said, "out of instinct," then he indeed would have reloaded in Moscone's office. And if it were truly an instinctive act, then he would have reloaded again after killing Milk.

After executing Moscone, White hurriedly walked across a long corridor to the area where the supervisors' offices were. His name had already been removed from the door of his office, but he still had a key. He went inside and reloaded his gun. Then he walked out, passing Supervisor Dianne Feinstein's office. She called to him, but he didn't stop. "I have to do something first," he told her, as he headed for Milk's office.

A psychiatrist testified that White must have been mistaken in his recollection of where he reloaded. The evidence on this key question became so muddled that one juror later recalled, "It was a very important issue, but it was never determined where he reloaded -- in Moscone's office or just prior to saying, 'Harvey, I want to talk with you.'"

In his confession, White had said, "I don't know why I put [my gun] on." At the trial, psychiatrists offered reasons ranging from psychological ("a security blanket") to practical (for "self-defense" against a People's Temple hit squad). But, a former police officer told me, "An off-duty cop carrying his gun for protection isn't gonna take extra bullets. If he can't save his life with the bullets already in his gun, then he's done for."

When White's aide, Denise Apcar, picked him up at 10:15 that fateful morning, he didn't come out the front door as he normally would. He emerged from the garage. He had gone down there to put on his service revolver, a .38 special, which he always kept loaded. He opened a box of extra cartridges, which were packed in rows of five, and wrapped ten of them in a handkerchief so they wouldn't rattle, into his pocket.

At one point in the confession to his old friend, Police Inspector Frank Falzon, White claimed, "I was leaving the house to talk, to see the mayor, and I went downstairs to, to make a phone call, and I had my gun there." But there was a phone upstairs, and White was home alone. Falzon neglected to pose a simple question that any kid playing detective would have asked,"Dan, who did you call?" -- the answer to which could have been easily verified.

In his confession, White said that, after shooting Moscone, "I was going to go down the stairs, and then I saw Harvey Milk's aide across the hall... and then it struck me about what Harvey had tried to do [oppose White's reappointment to the Board of Supervisors] and I said, 'Well, I'll go talk to him.'" But Apcar testified that while she was driving White to City Hall, he said he wanted to talk to both Moscone and Milk.

Getlin also wrote that White's attorneys "sold the jury on a diminished capacity defense, the now-famous 'Twinkie' defense..." However, this was a purely accidental tactic. 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, a member of White's legal team.

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 drinks. Metcalf recommended the book to Scherr, suggesting the author as an expert witness. For, in his book, Hoffer revealed a personal vendetta against doughnuts, and White had once eaten five doughnuts in a row.

On the witness stand, psychiatrist Martin Blinder stated that, on the night before the murders, while White was "getting depressed about the fact he would not be reappointed, he just sat there in front of the TV set, binging on Twinkies." In my notebook, I scribbled "the Twinkie defense," and wrote about it in my next report. 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."

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, "If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place."

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 spokesperson for 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." Lead attorney Doug Schmidt's closing argument became almost an apologetic parody of his own defense presentation. 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."

In January 1984, White was paroled after serving a little more than five years in prison. The estimated shelf life of a Twinkie was seven years, so when he was released, that Twinkie in his cupboard would still have been edible.

In October 1985, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. He taped a note to the windshield of his car, reading, "I'm sorry for all the pain and trouble I've caused."

I accepted his apology. I had gotten caught in the post-verdict riot and was beaten by a couple of cops. My gait was affected, and ultimately, as a result I now walk with a cane. At the airport, I have to put the cane on the conveyor belt along with my overnight bag and my shoes, but then I'm handed another cane to go through the metal detector. You just never know what could be hidden inside a cane.