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Monday, May 20, 2013

Metrish v. Lancaster - Decision - Can a State Supreme Court Retroactively Abolish the Diminished Capacity Defense?



About a month ago, the court heard oral arguments in Metrish v. Lancaster, which asked whether a state court could abolish the diminished capacity defense and if so, whether that could be applied retroactively to a crime committed while the defense was still valid.


Diminished Capacity is an affirmative defense that dates back about 60 years and was first recognized in California.  It became intertwined with the so-called "Twinkie Defense" from the the 1979 homicide trial of San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White.  White's lawyer successfully convinced a jury that his depression, as evidenced by the once health-conscious White turning to a diet of junk food, combined with the sugar rush of eating several Hostess Twinkies was enough to warrant a reduction from first degree murder to manslaughter.  Public disapproval lead California to abolish the defense as it was written and to implement one that was more difficult for defendants to establish.

Supported by nine other states, Michigan contended that the “diminished capacity” defense has been seriously criticized in recent years, and so "it could hardly come as a surprise when a state opted to take it away."

Today, the Court unanimously held that the state court decision to retroactively apply the Michigan Supreme Court's decision abolishing the diminished capacity defense did not violate due process.  This decision affirmed the Michigan Supreme Court's right to abolish defenses as well as the ability for lower courts to apply these decisions immediately, regardless of the state of the law when the crime was committed.  All justices agreed that this did not violate the due process or ex post facto clauses of the Constitution.

Read the decision here.