Criminal attorneys frequently assert novel defenses at trial and during plea negotiations. One of the more interesting defenses, sometimes referred to as the “Twinkie” defense, has existed for a number of years. It sounds patently silly on the surface given its name, but may actually have some basis in reality and, under appropriate circumstances, may be used effectively in cases involving criminal defendants with mental health issues.
The earliest notable use of the defense dates back to the trial of Dan White who was charged in the 1970s with shooting George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a city supervisor. Defense counsel presented evidence that White was mentally ill and depressed, and that his symptoms were worsened by eating junk food. White’s “main” defense was actually diminished capacity, but he asserted that eating large amounts of junk food contributed to his existing mental health issues. As ridiculous as it sounds, the argument apparently assisted him in obtaining a conviction for the lesser included offenses of voluntary manslaughter, instead of murder.
Variations on the defense have been asserted since the White case by defendants with mental health problems and issues. In or around 2017, Matthew Phelps of North Carolina was charged with his wife’s stabbing death. He discovered her blood-covered body on the floor when he woke up one morning, but had no memory of events from the prior evening. He believed he attacked her, but claimed that he remembered nothing because cough medicine that he took to help him sleep caused him to black out. Similarly, Dr. Louis Chen was charged with murdering his partner and their son. He asserted that at the time of the murders, he suffered from depression and paranoia which were worsened by his ingestion of cough medicine. James McVay, who claimed to have mental health and addiction issues, was charged with a stabbing death. He argued, among other things, that at all relevant times, he suffered from hallucinations caused by mixing alcohol and cough syrup. Shane Tilley, who presented evidence that he suffered from a schizoaffective disorder, argued that he stabbed someone to death while he was intoxicated by cough syrup. Continue reading