The Pure-Hearted Assassin
"A good man cracked" is how White's lawyer, Douglas Schmidt, explained it to the jury. Prosecutor Tommy Norman pressed for the death penalty, but he never used the word "assassination", though that is what it was. Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. To the other members of the Board of Supervisors, to the media, to the legislators in Sacramento, it was an assassination. But twelve jurors called it something else: voluntary manslaughter. And in a twisted way, George Moscone and Harvey Milk received the blame for their own murders.
This is what happened on Monday, 27 November 1978:
Over the weekend, White had heard the news that he was not going to be reappointed to his supervisorial seat. A Thanksgiving Day Chronicle editorial said: "White has only himself to blame for his troubles. If he has any gift at all for self-appraisal, he must be kicking himself."¹ He was. He'd spent the night restlessly pacing his house, eating cupcakes, reading books about the Irish Revolution, and ignoring the entreaties of his wife to come to bed. In the morning he dressed, loaded his .38 with some ordinary rounds and pocketed another load of dum-dum bullets. He slipped the gun into his shoulder holster and put on his suit jacket to hide it. An aide picked him up and drove him to City Hall.
City Hall was equipped with metal detectors. The mayor, city supervisors, and other high-ranking officials were allowed to sidestep these, but White was no longer a member of the club. He climbed through a basement window that led into a city engineering lab. Here he was confronted by the occupant, but he identified himself and explained that he'd lost his key and had to get in. Reluctantly, the engineer let him go on.
White went upstairs to the mayor's office. Here he faced an entrance watched by the mayor's personal bodyguard. As he hesitated, one of Moscone's secretaries saw him and invited him through a side entrance. Dan had no appointment, but Moscone's secretary, Cyr Copertini, got him in right away. She asked the mayor if he wanted someone to sit in on the meeting with him: Moscone said no. White went in and Cyr watched the clock so that White would not eat up too much of the mayor's time.
In the office, White demanded his job back. Moscone told him that it was not going to happen. He then offered White a conciliatory drink. He poked his head out of the office to tell Cyr that he'd be a few minutes and then led White into a small sitting room behind the mayor's ceremonial office. He left again and returned with a drink for himself and for White. He sat down in his chair. White asked him again if he'd reappoint him. And again Moscone said "No". White pulled his revolver, lunged from his chair, and pressed it into Moscone's chest. Twice he fired. The dum-dums flattened, expanded and fragmented as they hit bone, just like they were made to do. Moscone fell, face down. White, who'd learned how to kill during basic training, straddled Moscone, leaned over, and pumped two more shots into the Mayor's brain. Dan did not bother to use the fifth shot. He'd done his murderer's work.
But he was not through. He reloaded the gun and walked out. Cyr Copertini had heard the four cracking reports and was looking out the window, looking for a backfiring car. White slipped out and ran across City Hall's rotunda. He used a passkey which his aide had given him and let himself in the back door to the supervisor's office. Dianne Feinstein saw him along the way. She called to him as he passed, but he ignored her. He passed Harvey Milk's office. Milk was standing, waiting to sign a $3000 promissory note. White demanded to see Milk in private. Milk smiled nervously and led him inside. Milk was in a happy mood that morning: Moscone had told him that he was not reappointing Dan White. And a few weeks before, he'd single-handedly defeated the statewide Briggs Initiative, which would have started a witch-hunt against gays and lesbians. Dan screamed at Harvey, accused him of cheating him. Milk smiled, perhaps in placation, perhaps in glee at White's tantrum. This was too much for White who unleashed the force of his metal killing engine into Milk's gut. The second shot nicked Milk and pierced his chest in a nonvital region. White pursued Milk and delivered a third shot to the back, a fourth shot to the base of his skull, and, to make certain that Milk was dead, a fifth shot at point blank range through Milk's head. Dianne Feinstein found Milk only moments after White left. When she announced the deaths of the Mayor and Supervisor Milk to the press, Harvey's blood was still on her skirt.
White rushed from the office. He saw a city worker he knew on the stairs and greeted her cheerfully. He went to the parking lot, got into his aide's car, called his wife from a Doggie Diner, and then went up to Saint Mary's Cathedral to pray and wait for her. When she arrived, he said simply "I shot the Mayor and Harvey." She embraced him and felt for his gun, begging him not to kill himself. Until he turned himself in at the North Station, she held it fast.
In White's mind, his act had a terrible beauty. He knew the act of killing was ugly. But he also looked to someone to assure him that it had all been for a good cause. He did not have to look far. When news that the hated mayor and the gay supervisor were dead reached the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice, sporadic cheering broke out. His "interrogation" by White's former teammate Frank Falzon seemed to be geared towards providing White with an excuse for his actions. Perhaps Falzon was merely being kind to an old friend. White whimpered that he'd been falsely accused of graft. He insisted that this whole affair had come upon him like a storm over which he'd had no control. "I never killed anyone before, I never shot anyone before," the former Marine sergeant who'd led patrols in Vietnam insisted. "I didn't even know if I wanted to kill him, I just shot him."²
As Dan White fretted about his nasty temper, the mayor's wife, Gina, and his mother, Lena, arrived at the Moscone's Saint Francis Woods condominium to a crowd of reporters. Mrs. Moscone got out of the car, went into their home by a back entrance, and collapsed in tears. She and her mother-in-law had learned of George's death on the car radio. A few minutes later, a delegation from City Hall which included acting mayor Dianne Feinstein, City Attorney George Agnost, Chief Charles Gain, and Feinstein's financial consultant, Richard Blum, arrived. They spent fifteen minutes with the family. What amazed all who came into contact with the Moscones was their complete lack of malice toward the Whites.³
This generosity was not reciprocated by the San Francisco Police. Friends of the Whites raised $50,000 to help Mary Ann through the tough times. Crueler partisans printed up T-shirts calling to "Free Dan White". And police took the opportunity to do a little gay-bashing of their own, raiding bars and beating up the clientele. The officers on the line made it no secret that they saw Dan White as a hero. Normally, they would be calling for the death penalty for the man who had shot the mayor. But this was their friend, Dan White, who'd won them the statewide baseball pennant once. And the mayor was George Moscone, who'd appointed the hated Charles Gain to be their boss. And dead with Moscone was Harvey Milk, the "candypants" supervisor. They saw to it that their Danny got special treatment. They came to visit him and make light his hours in the cell. They brought him special treats and foods from nearby restaurants.
On the outside, Dan's friends and family were looking to help their Danny avoid the gas chamber.
Cyanic gas was introduced as a gentler means of execution after several horrific stories about the electric chair charred the public into second thoughts about capital punishment. The victim was strapped into the chair. He was advised not to hold his breath, but to breath deeply. Then the chamber was evacuated. Instead of pulling a demonic claw to send forth a shock wave, a button was pushed. In a nearby chamber, a cyanide capsule dropped into a vat of acid. A fan pushed the vapors into the chamber. The victim choked as the yellow-green gas ripped out his lungs. Often a man would take three or four minutes to die in this "painless" fashion.
Mary Ann, Ray Sloan, Dan's friends on the force, and his backers did not want this to happen to Dan. The Whites employed Douglas Schmidt, a young lawyer who had stunned the city by getting a young Chinese hoodlum a lesser sentence than his cohorts for a spectacular shooting in a Chinatown restaurant. Schmidt devised for White what some have called the "Twinkie Defense". A better summary is "Poor Dan White was so abused by people down at City Hall. It was only natural that he should lose it and shoot George Moscone and Harvey Milk."
The city's beleaguered progressives watched the trial with hope and horror. Prosecutor Tommy Norman sought a hanging jury. What he got was made up of people like Dan White. Perhaps as a prosecutor, he'd eased in mind in other cases by telling himself the lie that prejudice and hatred had nothing to do with a jury's decisions. These white people could be counted on to produce a verdict for the death penalty as they always did. If this was what Norman believed, he was kidding himself: If you threw out the gay and the ethnic minorities and the liberals who hated the death penalty, what you had left were people who would be Dan White's friends.
After Norman brought on witnesses like Frank Falzon who helped the defense make its case that White really hadn't meant to kill the mayor and Milk, Schmidt brought on a battery of psychiatrists who testified that White was suffering from depression and was not responsible for his actions. All of them spoke of Dan White's long-standing and untreated depression. Dr. Martin Blinder identified White's addiction to junk food as a signs of the disorder. In the outraged popular version of Blinder's testimony which followed the trial, Blinder was made out to say that the Twinkies had made White do it.
Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver was called to rebut defense claims about White's incapacity claims, but she was so skillfully manipulated by Schmidt that she seemed the very personification of the evil at City Hall which had goaded poor Danny into this heinous act. Schmidt tormented the single mother in his cross-examination . He asked her if she was gay. Shocked, she said she wasn't. What Schmidt had succeeded in establishing in the minds of his white working class jurors was that Supervisor Silver was a whore whose word could not be trusted. Against Silver, Schmidt set the long suffering Mary Ann White, the married woman, the mother of the White's son Charlie, the woman who had put up with Dan's foul moods and frustrations. White himself did not testify.
The jury found White guilty only of voluntary manslaughter. In other words, even though White had taken the trouble to load his gun in advance, to use the most lethal ammunition, to carry extra bullets, to climb through a window to avoid the metal detector, to sidestep Moscone's bodyguard, to reload after killing Moscone and then walk across City Hall to hunt down Harvey Milk, Douglas Schmidt had convinced the jury that there had been no premeditation. Moscone and Milk had brought it on themselves. White would receive only five to seven years for the double murder.
The verdict disrupted the complacency of the Castro lounge scene. Individuals marched out of the bars and formed a mob which marched up Market Street towards City Hall. They invited their friends to join them, chanting things like "Dan White was a cop", "Dan White, Hit man for the New Right", "Avenge Harvey Milk", and "Kill Dan White". One ditty ran:
Dan White lives
And Harvey Milk dies.¹¹
What caught everyone down at City Hall and the Hall of Justice by surprise was this gay and lesbian riot. Street cop lore had it that "pansies teased hair": if you beat on them, they just squalled a bit and hid. These "pansies" had had enough, though. They broke windows at City Hall, splashed red paint on the steps, and burned a line of baby blues. When riot police came to disperse them, they fought back.
The second half of the White Night¹² was a police riot, presaged by an attack on an anti-death penalty coalition protest. As the main march surged towards them, police stalwarts charged up the City Hall steps, tore down the nonviolent demonstrators' loudspeaker system, and hid inside. After the commotion around City Hall had died, gangs of cops hid their badges and invaded the Castro. Police leaped through the windows of the Elephant Walk (a popular bar), swinging their clubs, and banging both employees and customers over the head. As a new mob of gays formed to repel this police invasion, Chief Gain arrived on the scene and ordered his men to leave. For once, they listened to him.
While this happened, Dan White sat in his cell listening. Perhaps then it began to occur to him that he was no hero; that he'd not killed a tyrant and his henchman, but had assassinated two good men. Plenty of good men cracked. Some cracked in childhood when their alchoholic fathers beat them. Some cracked in war zones when shrapnel tore off the foreheads of their pals and brought the guts of both the enemy and the friends into their laps. Some cracked when they followed orders and shot children. Some cracked on street drugs. Some cracked because they'd been made to work too much overtime or lost their job or had had a fight with their wife. Towards these, the supporters of White would have turned a deaf ear. But White had friends on the police. He was a good-looking, straight, white boy. He could afford the best help there was. Moscone and Milk, both of whom opposed capital punishment, would not have asked why White was not given the death penalty, but why other, less advantaged persons with equal or greater claims to the diminished capacity defense than White did not receive equal treatment under the law.
White served his time at Soledad, in a special compound reserved for criminals who had committed spectacular crimes. Here he befriended another assassin, Sirhan Sirhan.¹³ In 1984, he was released on parole in the Los Angeles area. After a year, he was a free man.
Dianne Feinstein, who everyone agreed had pulled the city together after the assassinations, publically asked White not to return to San Francisco. Once, he'd been treated to tea in her home: now she would not have him in her city. He came back anyways; taking up residence in the Excelsior District, where neighbors and friends tried to hide his presence from the curious and the vengeful.
In all the uproar about the "Twinkie Defense", something which Dr. George Solomon had warned about seven years previous went unnoticed: if Dan White did not receive a heavy enough sentence, he would kill himself. As Dr. Blinder later explained to the Chronicle:
People who commit homicide are very high suicide risks. We explained at the time of the trial that he was acting out of depression. He'd suffered a lot of losses--lost his job, his status as a supervisor, and out of his depression came the homicides....The fact that he could never deal with his feelings is why he killed two people in the first place. People who don't know how to deal with feelings effectively, how to say I'm troubled, help me--the ones with the stoic, macho facade--are the ones who will then go out and act in an extreme fashion.²¹
Somewhere deep inside him, Dan White knew he'd done wrong. At the same time, he still coveted the martyrdom he'd handed the unwanting George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Two books, three plays, and an Academy Award winning film had been made about the crime. In not a single one of them was he the hero.
On 21 October 1985, he said goodbye to Mary Ann as she went to teach school on Treasure Island. He went in the house, made arrangements to see his brother Tom at 1 pm and wrote three notes (one to his brother, one to his mother, and one to his wife). When he'd explained himself, White went into the garage. There he created his own gas chamber by running a hose from the exhaust pipe of his 1979 yellow Buick LeSabre into the passenger compartment. A tape of an Irish ballad, its bitter words recalling late injustices of the British in northern Ireland, went into the stereo. He rolled up the windows and waited. His was a priveleged death. Dan White would breath none of the searing vapors that other murderers gulped in San Quentin's lethal chamber. Assuaged that he was oppressed by lyrics of the song, Dan White entered the tranquil sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning, a dreaming which ended as nobody can know except, perhaps, the spirit of Dan White.