China’s Twinkie defense?

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Those familiar with American jurisprudence will know about the “Twinkie defense,”* the idea that a defendant can, through a flimsy or preposterous argument, avoid the full punishment of the law.

China’s legal system now seems to be toying with its own Twinkie defense. When a tour guide stabbed 20 people in southwest China this spring, the first explanation for his assault was an argument over kickbacks paid for shopping tourist and an “unhappy childhood.” Then, the South China Morning Post reports, his lawyer argued that “he was mentally ill and proved his family had a history of psychiatric illness because of marriages among blood relations.” Now yet a new explanation has emerged. The SCMP quotes Xinhua as saying the alleged attacker had “travel mental disorder.”

When the trial of Xu Minchao, 25, resumes tomorrow, Lijiang Intermediate Court will be told he was certified to have been suffering from “travel mental disorder” when he attacked a group of tourists with a knife in Lijiang on April 1, according to Xinhua.

The condition had been found only on the mainland, Xinhua said.

Its most common syndromes include persecution mania, which could cause violent outbursts. Xinhua said the syndromes appeared to be temporary and would disappear within eight hours even without any treatment.

Now China is a unique place, but if “travel mental disorder” truly exists, then I’d venture that it can be found elsewhere, too. I think I had a case of travel mental disorder five years ago in India, stumbling through the town of Pathankot after 12 hours wedged into a plastic bus seat. I think I might even get travel mental disorder every time I get off a long-haul flight. Thankfully, my symptoms don’t seem to include violent rages. But I plan to eye my fellow passengers extra carefully next time.

* (The phrase “Twinkie defense,” as a story in the San Francisco Chronicle lays out here, is an inaccurate shorthand that refers to the case of a San Francisco supervisor who received a light sentence for killing the city’s mayor and a fellow supervisor in 1978.)

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