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“Eat a Twinkie, kill a man.” This was a phrase seen often in the newspapers and media during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The so-called “Twinkie Defense” is one of the more colorful myths of the criminal justice system; the misunderstood argument in the defense of Dan White during his 1979 trial. This defense originated with forensic psychiatrist Martin Blinder and his expert testimony about White’s mental state. This paper will analyze Blinder’s performance during the trial, from his research of White to his confident conclusion.
On November 27, 1978, Daniel James White was driven by his aide to the City Hall in San Francisco, California, carrying his loaded .38 in his pocket along with a handful of extra shells. He entered through the side window of the building, avoiding the main entrance after noticing the newly installed metal detectors. He proceeded to Mayor George Moscoe’s office, and after gaining entrance to the room, shot the mayor five times. He then proceeded to the office he used to work in, reloaded his gun, and asked Harvey Milk to talk to him. When Milk arrived, White shot him four times, twice in the head.
White fled to St. Mary’s Cathedral, called his wife, and turned himself in at Northern Station. White was tried in San Francisco in May 1979 on two counts of first-degree murder. The jury found that White lacked the mental capacity to act with malice, convicted him of voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The defense built it’s argument mainly on the doctrine of diminished capacity, a potential defense by which defendants argue that although they broke the law, they should not be held fully criminally responsible for doing so, as their mental functions were “diminished” or impaired (Pogash).
One of the five expert mental health professionals working for the defense, forensic psychiatrist Martin Blinder was the main expert responsible for testifying about White. He was questioned most about the mental state of the defendant, remaining on the stand for nearly an entire day discussing and explaining his evaluation of White. During this process, he testified that in the weeks leading up to the crime, White had changed his normal work habits and had given up his healthy diet, indulging in junk food. He explained that these activities were symptoms of depression (Snider).
Blinder testified that “high-sugar-content food with lots of preservatives, can precipitate anti-social and even violent behavior” (Barclay). His brief mention of junk food may or may not have included naming Twinkies as an example of the deterioration of White’s diet, but it received much attention in the media. Well-known satirist Paul Krassner played up the angle that somehow ingesting high sugar foods leads to acting in an aggressive manner. This testimony was twisted by the press into what is known as the “Twinkie Defense,” portraying the defense as attributing the killings to a sugar rush caused by eating Twinkies. This caused outrage in the community. Newspapers across the country began tossing around the phrase “twinkie defense” as if it were synonymous with diminished capacity (Pogash).
The phrase remains, to this day, a strong misnomer for the defense that lead Dan White to receive a lesser sentence than the community of San Francisco believed he deserved. During the times of a pro-gay movement in San Francisco, they believed that the sentence was not based on substantial evidence, but on the homophobic beliefs of the jury. The sentence resulted in the White Night Riots, a series of violent events in protest of the conviction.
Blinder, though, meant to introduce the junk food as a symptom of depression, rather than the cause of mental illness or aggression. He spoke of White casting aside his normal habits and growing slovenly, quitting work as a supervisor to start a new franchise in fast good in order to try to support his family, and beginning to see his wife less and less often because of their work schedules. Blinder’s testimony, as well as the other mental health professional’s expert testimonies, captured White’s desperate spiral downwards and included his bizarre nutritional detour (Stetler). It was argued that White’s ability to “maturely and meaningfully” reflect on the gravity and wrongfulness of the offense was impaired as a result of his depression (Gray).
In analysis of Blinder’s evaluation and testimony, one must consider the background information of White. He grew up in a working class family and was reportedly beaten up and teased about his weight as a child, leading him to exercise excessively in high school. He was married, in the times leading up to the trial he reported being unable to spend as much time with his wife (Barclay). He had reported “emotional and financial distress” as his reason for resigning from his position a few days before the shootings (Gray). His digression from a healthy lifestyle and his abandonment of hygiene pointed to a diagnosis of depression.
I speculate that because Blinder was hired by the defense, his evaluation and testimony were focused on symptoms supporting a diagnosis of mental illness. Because of this, there are details he did not include in his testimony that were relevant to his evaluation. The psychiatrist for the prosecution had examined White on the evening of the shooting and found him to be moderately depressed but without signs of clinical depression (Snider). Blinder also stated that White was so impaired by his depression that he could not premeditate his actions nor reflect on the immorality of the offense. Yet, White had decided to visit his victims and brought a loaded gun with him to shoot the mayor, reloading before searching for Supervisor Milk. These actions were signs of preparation for the offense, and contradict the ideas supporting the absence of premeditation.
This is not to say that Blinder did not do a good job. In fact, he did exactly what he was hired to do. He was hired to help the defense in assessing the mental state of White, and do this to their benefit as best he could without being dishonest or unethical in his presentation. His participation in portraying White as a victim of circumstance was a part of the reason that the jury was swayed to agree with the diminished capacity argument. He included information that was useful to the defense, and most likely coached the attorney on what questions to ask and what to avoid.
Looking at the evidence of depression by standard of preponderance of the evidence, it may have been quite accurate to diagnose White with clinical depression. It is sometimes the perception that expert testimony frequently reflects who is paying the clinician and is not an impartial assessment of the merits of a case. I believe that Blinder, though, did his job of being impartial.Of the information that he obtained in an unbiased manner, he was able to assist defense attorney Douglas Schmit in building a defense for a man that had a serious mental disorder.
Blinder was qualified to be doing so. Blinder was a graduate of Cornell University, the Chicago Medical School and the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California in San Francisco. During his many years in clinical practice, Dr. Blinder served as Chief of the Private Psychiatric Service at University of California hospital in San Francisco, Medical Director of the Family Therapy Institute of Marin, and Chief of Psychiatry at Laguna Honda Hospital. He was also a past Adjunct Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law. Dr. Blinder was a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and was a former Mayor of San Anselmo, California (Stetler). As someone who is sufficiently trained and knowledgeable in his field, Blinder was confident in his findings and conclusion.
It is unclear, on the other hand, whether Blinder’s ethical obligations were met. To be fully fair and unbiased in his evaluation, he would have had to consider all the factors before diagnosing White as clinically depressed. Yet, in order to tailor his report to his client (Schmit) he may have been overstepping his bounds somewhat when he confidently and assuredly pronounced White to be incapable of premeditation. I believe this confidence without careful admission to fallibility was a mistake on his part, and makes his expert testimony unethical. Blinder did not speak of the possibility that he could be wrong, or admit that there was any chance that White was indeed capable of the premeditation of the shootings.
Overall, forensic psychiatrist Martin Blinder was thorough and precise in his work when assessing White, but in performing his duty as a consultant of the defense and testifying about his area of expertise he overemphasized the accuracy of his diagnosis. Blinder’s expert testimony undeniably affected the results of the case, and is a strong example of the influence of a mental health professional in the court room. His influence on Dan White’s case enabled the defendant to spend a lesser time incarcerated than if he had not been considered to be of diminished capacity. His influence in the media, however, through the distortion of the evidence he presented in court, has affected how the public sees the testimonies of mental health professionals. While it is not something he intended, the “Twinkie Defense” and its subsequent effect on the public’s opinion of psychology in the court resulted in a more scrutinizing look at expert testimony.
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