Born in San Francisco in 1946, Dan White became infamous in 1978 when he assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall following a dispute with Moscone. He was convicted of manslaughter in a highly controversial trial.
When Dan White shot dead America's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in November 1978, the case caused a sensation that would go down in history as the "Twinkie Defense" and make Milk into a gay icon.
Daniel James White was born on September 2, 1946 in Long Beach, California. He was the second of nine children and often described as an "an all-American boy." He excelled in sports in high school and went on to serve in the Vietnam War as a paratrooper. He returned home to work first as a policeman and then as a fireman in San Francisco. In 1977, he was elected to the Board of Supervisors on a conservative platform.
White was was troubled by growing official tolerance of overt homosexuality and crime. He represented a predominantly white middle-class section that was hostile to the growing homosexual community of San Francisco and became part of a loosely formed coalition to oppose Mayor George Moscone and his liberal ideas. He also had frequent disagreements on policy with fellow supervisor Harvey Milk.
In the 1970s, many psychiatrists still considered homosexuality to be a mental illness, and there was no real national gay organization. Moscone was an early supporter of gay rights, and had managed to abolish a law against sodomy. He was also the first mayor to appoint large numbers of minority groups, including gays and lesbians, to influential positions within San Francisco.
Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to an official position of any significance in America. He had previously served in the Korean War and when he returned to Manhattan he become a Wall Street investment banker. He soon tired of it though and befriended gay radicals who frequented Greenwich Village.
In 1972, Milk moved to the Castro, the heart of San Francisco's gay community, where he ran for election as a city supervisor three times before he succeeded. His persistence led many to dismiss him as nothing more than an attention seeker. However, he believed that the root cause of the gay predicament was their invisibility in governing roles; the gay community nicknamed him "The Mayor of Castro Street."
On joining the board, Dan White was forced to resign his job as a fireman due to a provision in the city charter that barred anyone from holding two city jobs. He started a restaurant business, but it failed due to the pressures of his work for the city. Finding it impossible to support his family on the meager supervisor's salary of $9,600 a year and the increasing back seat he felt he was being forced into by Moscone, Milk and other progressive board members, he abruptly resigned his seat after Milk's gay rights bill got passed. White had opposed it.
White's colleagues and constituents convinced him to retract his resignation, so he approached Moscone and asked to be reappointed to the board. Although Moscone considered White's plea, he had already been strongly influenced by Milk and other board members to appoint liberal-minded federal housing official Don Horanzy, instead.
On November 27, 1978, Dan White went to City Hall with a loaded .38 revolver. In order to avoid the metal detectors, he entered through a basement window that had been left open for ventilation. He proceeded to the Mayor's office, where the two men began arguing until Moscone suggested they go to a more private room so that they could not be heard. Once there, Moscone refused to reinstate White to his previous position, and White shot the mayor twice in the chest and twice in the head.
He then went down the corridor and shot Milk, twice in the chest, once in the back, and twice again in the head. Soon after, he turned himself in at the police station where he used to work.
Years later, reports came out that White had also planned to assassinate Assembly member Willie Brown and fellow supervisor and attorney Carol Ruth Silver, but he was unable to find them that day.
During a videotaped confession, White came across as a pathetic man who was barely able to explain why he had assassinated his colleagues. His defense lawyer, Douglas R. Schmidt, claimed White had acted in the heat of passion and not out of malice. He made a plea of "diminished capacity," due to extreme stress in White's home life and depression. Describing White's emotional state, psychiatrist Martin Blinder, one of five defense therapists, explained that in the days leading up to the shootings, White grew slovenly and abandoned his usual healthy diet and indulged in a diet of sugary junk food like Coke, doughnuts and Twinkies instead.
Newspapers across the country picked up on a great headline, and today the term "Twinkie defense" is a derogatory label implying that a criminal defense is artificial or absurd.
The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. White was sentenced to a maximum of seven years and eight months in prison and never expressed public remorse for the murders.
Peaceful demonstrations by Castro's gay community outside City Hall turned violent. 5,000 policemen responded by entering nightclubs armed with truncheons and assaulting patrons. By the riots' end, 124 people were injured, including 59 policemen. The incident became commonly known as "The White Night Riots."
White served five years, one month and nine days at Soledad State Prison and was released on parole on January 6, 1984. He lived away from his family in Los Angeles for a year and then asked to return to San Francisco. New Mayor Dianne Feinstein issued a public statement asking him not to.
Ignoring her wishes, he returned to a city where he was not welcome. Dogged by fears of retaliation, his marriage fell apart and he became increasingly depressed, eventually committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 39.
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