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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 

Twinkies and the Right to Counsel

The Supreme Court heard argument Tuesday in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, a case concerning the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Linda Greenhouse has a round up of the case and the oral arguments in this article. Since it is in the NYT and I expect a lot of people to get their impressions of the case from this article, I'd just like to explain something about it. It has nothing to do with the merits of the case, just something said during the arguments. Greenhouse offers this quote at the end...
"I don't want a 'competent' lawyer," Justice Scalia told Mr. Dreeben. "I want a lawyer to get me off. I want a lawyer to invent the Twinkie defense. I want to win."
What is the Twinkie defense? I thought you might be wondering that. Well it involves the case of Dan White, a former San Francisco politician who had recently resigned from office. He shot and killed two men in San Francisco's city hall, one of the men being the mayor. According to the story, White's team of lawyers argued that White's eating of Twinkies and other sugar-heavy food had diminished his mental capacity. He was found not guilty of murder by the jury (but he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge). That's how the story goes.

This isn't exactly true, though. One of the doctors who testified said that White was depressed and that his crappy diet was a sign of that depression. The media, being the lazy and sloppy folks that they often are, decided to remove that important step in the story. They just went with the snappy line that "the Twinkies made him do it". The media made it look like the Twinkies were the cause, when that was not what the lawyers argued at all. This is one of my favorite legal urban legends, so I just thought I'd clear things up.

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  • I'm Steve
  • From Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
  • "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." P.J. O'Rourke
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