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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: George Moscone and Harvey Milk

The mayor’s bodyguard called in a frantic plea for police assistance at 10:56 a.m. on Monday, November 27, 1978. The first officer on the scene confirmed the urgency with a simple five-word declarative sentence uttered into his walkie-talkie: “We’ve got a homicide here.” The “here” was San Francisco City Hall.

As police and rescue personnel converged on the second floor offices of the Board of Supervisors, they found a horrific scene. George Moscone, the freewheeling mayor who had celebrated his forty-ninth birthday three days earlier, lay sprawled on the floor, his famously silver hair discolored by blood. He had been shot once in the chest and shoulder and twice in the head. He still held a burning cigarette in his hand when the first paramedics arrived. Down the hall they found his colleague, Supervisor Harvey Milk, also lying face down on the floor, dead. He had been shot five times, including twice in the head.

The final chapter of my 2017 book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders discusses the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

Within minutes, police officers had a reasonably good idea of the shooter’s identity, and he likely acted alone. A male dispatcher spoke into the police radio. “Attention all units: Suspect on the 187 at City Hall, suspect named Dan White. White adult male. Thirty-two years. Six feet. One hundred eighty-five pounds. Wearing a three-piece suit. Considered armed and dangerous.” The usual dispatcher, Patty, had stepped away from the microphone. Dan White was her brother.

Investigators were organizing a manhunt when, at 11:37 a.m., the temporary dispatcher reported that the suspect had voluntarily turned himself in at the Northern Police Station near city hall. He had once served as a police officer there. Examining the circumstances, investigators believed that his motive was straightforward. It was revenge, pure and simple.

A Vietnam veteran and former police officer, Dan White served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from January through November 1978. Elected in 1977, White initially worked well with his colleagues. As the year progressed, however, he clashed with his fellow supervisors. In a fit of pique, he resigned on November 10, 1978. Within a few days, however, White regretted his decision. He hoped that San Francisco mayor George Moscone would appoint him to his old position. The mayor initially agreed, but then changed his mind.

On November 27, 1978, White entered San Francisco City Hall through a window while carrying a .38-caliber revolver. The window entry allowed him to avoid the metal detectors because White intended to shoot Moscone as well as three other elected officials—fellow Supervisors Carol Ruth Silver and Harvey Milk along with California Assembly Speaker and future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Silver and Brown were not in city hall that day, but White encountered Moscone immediately. The two men engaged in a heated argument inside Moscone’s office. When White realized he could not convince the mayor to appoint him to the position, he pulled the revolver and shot Moscone in the shoulder and chest. As Moscone slumped to the floor, White shot the man twice in the head.

His work was not done. White charged through the building in search of Harvey Milk. He soon found his target. After reloading his gun, White shot Milk five times, including two shots to the head. In White’s opinion, Milk had bad-mouthed him once too often to the mayor.

For many San Francisco citizens, the Milk murder was especially egregious. The first openly gay person elected to office in California, he was a prominent activist and beloved by many. Gays and lesbians could not help but wonder whether Milk’s murder was a hate crime.

The Dan White homicide trial commenced on May 1, 1979. Assistant District Attorney Tom Norman presented the state’s case against the defendant, leading the jury through the events on the day of the shootings. He noted the significance of Dan White’s preparations on November 27 as well as his need to reload the .38 between the time he shot Moscone and when he shot Milk. If White had acted in the heat of passion, he would not have acted so methodically in executing the two victims. It was a clear case of premeditated, first degree “malice” murder.

Defense attorney Douglas Schmidt had anticipated the prosecution’s case. The evidence against White was overwhelming, so there was no point in challenging the facts about what happened. Instead, he told the jurors that he intended to “show not so much what happened on November twenty-seventh, but rather why those tragedies occurred.” According to the defense attorney, “I think that when all the facts are out the charge of first-degree murder simply will not be supported here….” Schmidt’s opening statement revealed his central theory of the case: “Good people, fine people, with fine backgrounds, simply don’t kill people in cold blood.” Dan White shot these two men because he was suffering from depression.

Prosecutors believed a tape-recorded confession that White provided to investigators immediately following the shooting would convince the jury that he had acted with premeditation and did not deserve sympathy or compassion. Yet, strangely enough, the recordings had the opposite effect. Several jurors wept when they heard White describe his state of mind. “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, ah… not being able to have time with my family….” What was supposed to be a conventional murder case buttressed by a taped confession became a referendum on the defendant’s state of mind.

Reporters seized on one aspect of the defense that came to be known derisively as the “Twinkie Defense.” Schmidt argued that White was suffering from a series of mental problems in the days and weeks leading up to the shootings. Testimony indicated that White had consumed prodigious quantities of sugary snack foods, allowing Schmidt to argue that the defendant’s abnormally high blood sugar level contributed to his depressive state. The reliance of a poor diet was only a small part of the defense strategy, but reporters breathlessly penned stories and articles on the gullibility of the jurors in accepting such a patently absurd argument.

Schmidt’s strategy was far more sophisticated than the Twinkie Defense suggested. He carefully constructed a narrative that portrayed Dan White as a courageous, hard-working, honest, straight-shooting supervisor surrounded by lying politicians who broke their promises; opportunistic, backbiting homosexuals; and self-absorbed city hall cronies who cared more about their own career advancement than they did about the public interest. It was a brilliant tale, masterfully crafted. Dan White, the perennially unpopular and moody outcast who chafed at the political system, was transformed into a white knight, a devoted public servant and dedicated family man—a pillar of the community, really—who desired nothing so much as an opportunity to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. He had snapped in a moment of weakness caused by his deep depression, but he was hardly a cold-blooded killer.

Prosecutors knew their case was imploding, but they were at a loss to regain control of the narrative. Even the prosecution witnesses failed to support their argument. Dianne Feinstein, the supervisor who became mayor after Moscone’s death, had been the first person to arrive at Harvey Milk’s side in the seconds after the shooting. Feinstein was horrified by the crime and appeared as a key prosecution witness. Yet she admitted on cross examination that Dan White did not seem to be the type of person who would shoot two people. The admission supported the defense theory that White must not have been in his right mind when he pulled the trigger that day.

On May 21, 1979, after 36 hours of deliberations stretching across six days, the jury of seven women and five men announced its verdict: Dan White was guilty of two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Based on the verdict, Judge Walter Calcagno sentenced the defendant to the maximum term allowed under California law: seven years, eight months in prison. If White behaved while he was confined, he would be eligible for parole in five years.

District Attorney Joseph Freitas, Jr., addressed the press immediately. “I’m very, very disappointed,” he said. “It was a wrong decision. The jury was overwhelmed by emotions and did not sufficiently analyze the evidence that this was deliberate, calculated murder.”

Predictably, the defense attorney viewed the result differently. “It’s the verdict that was supported by the evidence,” Doug Schmidt said. “It was voluntary manslaughter. It was an awful thing, and I don’t want to make light of it.” His client was out of the public eye, but Schmidt assured the press that White was “filled with remorse and I think he’s in very bad condition.”

Many San Franciscans did not care about Dan White’s bad condition. They were outraged at what they viewed as undeniably unjust verdicts. The gay community found the Milk murder especially egregious. Already convinced that Dan White was homophobic, gay activists saw the jury verdicts as additional evidence that homosexuals were discriminated against in the criminal justice system. If Harvey Milk had been a straight, conservative businessman, his murderer would have been held accountable.

On the evening of May 21, 1979—hours after the verdict was announced—between 3,000 and 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest the travesty of justice. Coincidentally, it was the evening before Harvey Milk’s forty-ninth birthday. During the so-called “White Night Riots,” protestors broke windows, set fire to police cars, and railed against the crooked legal system. Carol Ruth Silver, one of the supervisors targeted by White who escaped injury or death because she was absent from city hall on November 27, 1978, tried to address the crowd and was struck in the head by a flying object.

Harry Britt, the gay man selected to replace Milk on the Board of Supervisors after the shooting, held a press conference to express the mood of the crowd. “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” Gay activist Cleve Jones bitterly commented that “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”

Dan White served five years of his sentence before winning parole on January 7, 1984. After his release, he was a pariah among his former friends and colleagues. On October 21, 1985, he killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. He extended a hose from the exhaust pipe in his automobile to the interior of the car. Afterward, he sat inside the car as it idled in his garage. White was 39 years old.

Hollywood resurrected interest in Harvey Milk’s story over the years, most notably in Gus Van Sant’s critically acclaimed 2008 film Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White. Penn earned a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal. The screenwriter, gay activist Dustin Lance Black, intimated in the film that White might have been a closeted gay man who shot his victims as an act of self-loathing, although most sources familiar with the real-life events believe that revenge for Moscone’s decision not to reappoint White was the primary motive.

The difficulty with pinpointing Dan White’s motives is that he was an odd person who may have suffered from mental illness. A case can be made, however, that he understood exactly what he was doing. Perhaps he was a Type 1 killer. He accepted the consequences of his action, lashing out to accomplish a political purpose. George Moscone and Harvey Milk stood in White’s way of becoming a Supervisor again and earning the respect and admiration of his family and friends. As he contemplated the humiliation of not being reappointed, he reached the end of his tether.

Perhaps he was a Type 4 assassin. As he descended into deep depression—regardless of whether his poor diet triggered his rage—White became convinced that he had no recourse but to murder the men who had occasioned his misery. He was incapable of appreciating the consequences of his actions. Had he been in his right mind, Dan White would have understood that shooting two men to death would not restore his exalted status in the community or in the eyes of his loved ones.

As his attorney, Doug Schmidt, argued, White was suffering from diminished capacity when he pulled the trigger that awful day. The old Dan White that everyone knew before November 27, 1978, would never had behaved in such a violent, irresponsible manner. He was a difficult man to deal with, but he was not a murderer.

Perhaps his neuroses compelled him to act as a Type 2 killer or his nihilism pushed him to become a Type 3 killer. Although these categorizations are possible, they seem less compelling than a Type 1 or Type 4 classification. In any event, it is difficult to pin down why Dan White acted as he did. Observers and loved ones did not fully understand his motives in 1978, and no one fully understands them now.

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