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Daniel James White Trial: 1979

Defendant: Daniel James White
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr
Chief Prosecutor: Thomas F. Norman
Judge: Walter F. Calcagno
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trial: April 25-May 21, 1979
Verdict: Guilty, Voluntary Manslaughter
Sentence: 7 years, 8 months.

SIGNIFICANCE: Celebrity murder trials inevitably attract massive media coverage. What made the Dan White case unique was the volatile mix of politics, revenge, and homosexual intolerance. Many wondered if that intolerance spilled over into the jury room. How else could they explain such a verdict based on a defense of impaired mental capacity resulting from eating too much "junk food?"

On November 27, 1978, 32-year-old Dan White entered the San Francisco City Hall by crawling in through a basement window. He adopted this unorthodox means of access to avoid negotiating a metal detector in the main entrance, for reasons which would soon become clear. Once inside, White breezed through the familiar corridors of power. He was on a retrieval mission. Earlier that summer, this ambitious young politician had impetuously resigned his post as a city supervisor, citing financial difficulties; now he wanted that job back. Only one man could make that possible: Mayor George Moscone. White reached Moscone's office and was invited in.

The two men talked, or rather argued, for several minutes. As the exchange heated up, Moscone made it plain that he had no intention of reappointing White, who had become a political liability, whereupon White drew a. 38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver that had been tucked into his belt and pumped four bullets into his former boss. After reloading, White hunted down long-time political foe Harvey Milk, another city supervisor. Five shots ended Milk's life. White ran from the building, only to surrender to the authorities one hour later.

Police guarded White closely, fearing possible retaliation. They had good cause for concern. Milk, one of San Francisco's most militant gay activists, had many supporters, all of whom loathed White and the homophobic attitudes he had espoused when in office. Anything was possible in such a volatile situation.

Double Execution

Prosecutor Thomas Norman sought to diffuse some of that volatility with a calm, orderly representation of the facts when the state opened its case against Dan White on May 1, 1979. He described in simple terms what amounted to a double execution, carried out deliberately and with malice aforethought. It was, he said, a crime deserving of death in the gas chamber.

Few could have envied Douglas Schmidt's task when he rose to make the opening statement on White's behalf; after all, he was representing an admitted double assassin. However, he soon went on the offensive. In a fine speech he skillfully diverted the jury's attention away from the crime itself and onto the emotional traumas that White had undergone since relinquishing his position as city supervisor. "Good people, fine people, with fine backgrounds, simply don't kill people in cold blood," said Schmidt, "it just doesn't happen, and obviously some part of him has not been presented thus far." Schmidt claimed that White's crimes had been the product of manic depression, "a vile biochemical change" over which the defendant had no control. As added insurance, just in case this line of reasoning failed to sway the jury, Schmidt rounded out his opening with some very pointed comparisons between Milk's overtly homosexual lifestyle and White's all-American background.

The prosecution responded with a parade of witnesses, each of whom recounted events leading up to and on the fateful day at City Hall. Chief among them was recently elected San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Mayor Feinstein detailed White's frustration with the political system, his inability to make a difference, as a major source of his discontent. Schmidt scored heavily on cross-examination when he asked, "Would it be your opinion that the man you knew [White] was the type of man who would have shot two people?" Over strenuous state objections, she was allowed to respond. "No," she said. "It would not."

At this point the prosecution began to unravel. What was supposed to be the high-water mark of their casea taped confession made by White within hours of the shootingsturned into disaster. The tape should have sealed his fate. It did no such thing. Jurors heard him whine: "Well, it's just that I've been under an awful lot of pressure lately, financial pressure, because of my job situation, family pressure because of not being able to have time with my family." The killings were hardly mentioned at all, and White's only display of remorse came when describing his own predicament. And yet, several jurors wept openly as they listened to the story of a man pushed beyond his endurance. Prosecutor Norman could not believe the evidence of his own eyes and earsDan White had been turned into a martyr, an object of sympathy.

Unique Defense

Schmidt capitalized on what had been a lackluster prosecution by turning the trial into an examination of White's mental state. Several psychiatrists testified that the defendant had not really meant to commit murder but had been driven to it by factors beyond his control. Much was made of White's prodigious intake of junkfood and candywhat came to be known as the "Twinkies Defense"in which an abnormally high blood sugar count was blamed for the mayhem that he had wrought. It was a novel but effective defense.

But most effective of all were Schmidt's repeated portrayals of White as an upstanding young man, an ex-fireman and ex-police officer, someone who had been defeated by a corrupt system he was powerless to change. Schmidt cunningly marshaled public resentment against both politicians and homosexuals into one neat package. He found nothing unusual in the fact that White was carrying a gun on the fateful day (As an ex-cop, could anything have been more natural?), or that he had crawled in through a window at City Hall to, as one psychiatrist stated, avoid "embarrassing the officer at the metal detector." Dan White, Schmidt said, was acting under an "irresistible impulse to kill," and as such, under California law, was entitled to a verdict of manslaughter.

The jury agreed. On May 21, 1979, they returned two verdicts of voluntary manslaughter. Judge Walter Calcagno handed down the maximum sentence, seven years, and eight months imprisonment. With time off for good behavior, Dan White was looking at freedom in five years.

When news of the verdicts hit the streets, an already incendiary situation exploded. Five thousand gays marched on City Hall to protest, and a full-scale riot ensued. Inside the jail, the target of their rage, Dan White, lay on his cell cot, ears plugged against the bedlam.

Over concerted gay protests, White was paroled in 1984. But liberty proved even more onerous than incarceration. Plagued by demons that just wouldn't leave him alone, on October 21, 1985, Dan White wrote the final chapter in this tragedy by committing suicide.

The Dan White trial became a rallying call for homosexuals all across America. In their eyes, the jury had semi-officially sanctioned gay murder. Overlooked was the fact that George Moscone was a happily married family man. Somehow that got lost in the politics. Even so, it is difficult to dispute their firmly held belief that had White killed Moscone alone, he probably would still be behind bars.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fitzgerald, Frances. "The Castro-II." New Yorker (July 28, 1986): 44-63.

Robinson, P. "Gays In The Streets." New Republic (June 9, 1979): 9-10.

Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Weiss, Mike. Double Play. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1984.

Daniel James White Trial: 1979

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