Court may abolish contentious “Twinkie defense”

On Wednesday, April 24, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Metrish v. Lancaster, a murder case from Michigan with potentially massive ramifications in criminal law; more importantly, however, the case asks citizens to engage more meaningfully in how law is made, by whom it is made, and what we expect from our criminal justice system.
Burt Lancaster, a former Detroit police officer, was found guilty of murdering his former girlfriend, Toni Kind, in 1994. At trial, Lancaster asserted a defense of “diminished capacity,” a legal defense offered in some states where one does not need to demonstrate actual legal “insanity” but merely to demonstrate that a temporary, “diminished” mental state induced a person to commit a crime. The jury rejected this defense and found him guilty, but Lancaster appealed the decision in federal court on technical grounds, and won a re-trial in 2005. s
The defense is contentious n the United States for several reasons, most notably because it was used in the trial of Dan White. The whole story is too long and complicated to recount here, but I’ll give the basics. In 1979, White shot and killed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to any public office in the United States (he was a member of the San Fransisco Board of Supervisors), and George Moscone, then-mayor of San Fransisco. At trial, White (with the help of psychiatrists) claimed that, having recently lost his job and (literally) having eaten too much junk food, he couldn’t determine right from wrong and then killed Moscone and Milk. White was found guilty of manslaughter, a lesser charge, rather than murder; since the trial, the diminished capacity defense has often been called the “twinkie defense.” California abolished diminished capacity as a legal defense in 1982.
Since then, numerous other states have followed—including Michigan, where Lancaster is being tried. According to the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “the majority of states do not have the concept of the defense of diminished capacity.” Thus, this defense isn’t exactly something people are entitled to—it is a legal maneuver granted to them based on the state that they are charged in.
While Michigan allowed a defendant to enter a defense of diminished capacity at the time of Lancaster’s trial, a Michigan Supreme Court decision abolished the defense in 2001. If it’s not immediately clear why this becomes a problem for Lancaster, I’ll spell it out: Lancaster asserted diminished capacity when the defense existed in 1994. The jury found him guilty. He appealed his verdict and won a re-trial in 2005. But, in 2001, Michigan courts removed diminished capacity as a legal defense. At his second trial, he attempted to raise the same defense, saying that the constitution protects his rights at the time of the original trial and that they cannot be post-hoc altered. But, at his trial in 2005, the court found that he could not legally raise the defense, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
This case not only raises a fascinating and unique circumstance in criminal law, but raises two fundamental questions: One is a question of transparency, and one is a question of desirability.
As a simple matter of good governance, government decisions should be open and transparent. While it’s true that court opinions are often posted online, or available in a state capitol repository, that alone should not qualify a decision as “transparent.” What seems to be happening here is that a Michigan court is retroactively stripping a man of his legal right to present a defense at his trial. While the court may have ruled that the defense never “really” existed and thus the decision is not retroactive, that doesn’t seem to be true. It strikes me that the decision was announced by a court, and not a legislature; I’m no judicial minimalist and certainly not a legal positivist, but it seems that the Michigan courts are just engaged in some shoddy housekeeping, routinely cleaning out legal tomes and sweeping out-dated defenses under the rug without a whole lot of public accountability.
But as a question of desirability, I have to agree with the courts here. This defense doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and rests on shoddy legal foundations; if someone is incapable of discerning legal from illegal actions and they have no control over their actions in the first place, then the defendant ought to be limited to a legal insanity defense, and shouldn’t have this half-measure as an option. The defense also has patently ludicrous variants, such as “I ate too many Twinkies and that’s why I killed Harvey Milk.”
This case is both complicated and interesting. Whether the court will uphold the defense, I’m not certain, but whatever they do, the defense is gone for good.