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Robert Haaland
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Eating Twinkies, the Trans Panic Defense, and Stealing Your Right to be a Heterosexual

By Robert Haaland

July 17, 2006

The law don't mean shit if you've got the right friends,
That's how this country's run,
Twinkies are the best friend I've ever had,
I fought the law and I won
I fought the law and I won
I blew George and Harvey's brains out with my six-gun
I fought the law and I won...

(Verses from a song by the Dead Kennedys that satirized the verdict of Dan White, the murderer of former Supervisor Harvey Milk and then Mayor George Moscone. The song is a reinterpretation of a song originally recorded by Bobby Fuller called "I fought the law and the law won.")

According to some of my elders, former SF Bay Guardian writer and satirist Paul Krassner actually coined the term the Twinkie Defense, an argument most believe was used during the trial of Dan White to suggest that he should not be convicted of first degree murder as his mental capacity was diminished from eating Twinkies. Apparently the Twinkie Defense is actually a myth though. The real argument was that White was depressed and the fact that he was eating Twinkies was evidence, not the cause, of his depression. During the trial, one of his psychiatrists testified that White was depressed and should not have been found guilty of first degree murder because of his diminished capacity. Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not first degree murder, and served only five years in prison. Krassner later quipped White's time served was two years less than the shelf life of a Twinkie, meaning Twinkies really do last for seven years.

When I first heard of the Trans Panic Defense, I thought of the Twinkie Defense. In this instance, the lawyer for the defendant argues the defendant's culpability should be reduced because they panicked when they found out the victim's gender identity or sexual orientation. The strategy became nationally well-known during the Gwen Araujo trial, but while the use of the strategy was unsuccessful in this case, it has been successful in other cases and some District Attorneys factor in the possibility of this strategy being used by defendants when they decide whether to plea bargain or go to trial. When an attorney in the District Attorney's office in Atlanta was murdered and the defendant successfully argued a Gay Panic Defense, the District Attorney hosted the first symposium to educate those in the Criminal Justice system on how to address this type of bigotry in the courtroom.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Gwen Araujo trial, District Attorney Kamala Harris decided to host a symposium as well, one which also addressed the Trans Panic Defense and hate crimes against the LGBT community. The conference will be held Thursday, July 20th and Friday July 21st at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. In addition, the District Attorney is hosting a Town Hall meeting for the community at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, July 20th at the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street in San Francisco. There will also be a reception prior to the Town Hall meeting starting at 5PM at the LGBT Center. Sylvia Guerrero, mother of Gwen Araujo, Dave O'Malley, former Police Chief in Laramie, Wyoming, and Assembymember Sally Lieber, author of State-wide legislation that would make the court instruct jurors not to use the panic defense, will be at the Town Hall meeting on Thursday night at the LGBT center.

During the two-day conference, academics, and law enforcement officials will present sessions on the psychology of the "panic strategies," the dynamics of these strategies, and how law enforcement and the community can work together to hold criminals accountable. This conference will have a huge impact for the transgender community. During the Araujo trial, I felt like Transgender women were walking around with targets on their back. Again, while it was not successful in this trial, estimates are that it has been used in over 45 trials and is usually successful. The lesson is: kill a transgender person, claim to have had your heterosexuality stolen, and get off.

If you get a moment, attend the conference. One of my favorite legal gender theorists, Angela Harris will be there, several prominent transgender activists like Theresa Sparks, Yosenio Lewis, Tamara Ching, Shannon Mintor, James Green, and Susan Stryker,, and there will even be a panel for those in the media who are interested in hearing how reporters "report" on these cases in respectful ways. Local writers Zak Syzmanski and Yomi Wronge are featured panelists.

As most know, I took a lot of body blows for supporting Kamala Harris when she ran for District Attorney. I knew then and I know now that it was the right choice. But when she decided to do this symposium, the first thing I thought was how glad I am she is our District Attorney. After next week, the lesson will be you can't kill a trannie and get away with it. Twinkies won't help either…Thanks Kamala.

By the way, as most know, I am now a Commissioner. I have spent most of this weekend reading my packet and reading information about the Commission. I said it on Friday when I was sworn in, but it bears saying again. I am truly lucky to have all of you in my life. I learn so much from all of you every day. Thank you. I will do my best to serve the interests of our City.

Robert Haaland is a member of the San Francisco Board of Appeals and publishes leftinsf.com.

Email Robert Haaland at robert_haaland@hotmail.com.




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