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Dan White: The City Hall Killer

Crime Files
Dan White: The City Hall Killer

When Dan White shot dead America’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, and the 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 2 September 1946 in San Francisco. He was the second of nine children and often described as an “an all-American boy”. At high school he excelled in sports 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 and, in 1977 he was elected onto the Board of Supervisors. White was a conservative who was troubled by growing official tolerance of overt homosexuality and crime. He represented a district of predominantly poor white working class people and became part of a loosely formed coalition to oppose Mayor George Moscone and his liberal ideas, and White 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 organisation. 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 Franciso’s gay community, where he ran for election as a city supervisor three times before he succeeded. His relentless pursuit for attention led Milk to be dismissed as a publicity whore by many, but he knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility and 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 anybody from holding two city jobs. He started a restaurant business, but it failed due to the pressures of being a councillor. 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. His colleagues and constituents influenced his decision to protest at the position he found himself and retract his resignation. White approached Moscone and asked to be re-appointed to the Board and, although Moscone considered White’s plea, he had already been strongly influenced by Milk and other Board members to appoint another liberal, Federal Housing official Don Horanzy, instead.


2 September 1946 (White born) 27 November 1978 (White shot Moscone and Milk) 21 May 1979 (White found guilty of voluntary manslaughter) 21 May 1979 (The White Night Riots) 6 January 1984 (White paroled) 21 October 1985 (White committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning)

The Trial

At his trial in 1979 it was revealed that White also planned to assassinate Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and fellow supervisor and attorney Carol Ruth Silver, but couldn’t find them.During a videotaped confession he came across as a pathetic man who was barely able to explain why he had assassinated his colleagues. His defence lawyer Douglas R. Schmidt claimed he 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. Whilst describing White’s emotional state, psychiatrist Martin Blinder, one of five defence 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 defence” is a derogatory label implying that a criminal defence is artificial or absurd.The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, despite his obvious pre-meditation. White was sentenced to a maximum of seven years and eight months in prison and never expressed public remorse for the murders.

The Key Figures

Mayor George Moscone (victim) Supervisor Harvey Milk (victim) Douglas R. Schmidt (White’s lawyer) Mayor Dianne Feinstein (Moscone’s successor)

The Crimes

On 27th November 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 negligently left open for ventilation. He proceeded to the Mayor's office where the two men began arguing until Moscone suggested going to a more private room so that they couldn’t be heard. Once there, Moscone refused to re-appoint him 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 and there are reports that his old colleagues cheered and applauded him when he arrived.

The Aftermath

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. 124 people were injured, including 59 policemen. The episode is known in history as “The White Night Riots”.White served five years at Soledad State Prison and was released on parole on 6 January 1984. He lived undercover 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 wasn’t 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.