"The Twinkie Defense" Murders

The trial of Daniel James White in San Francisco was dubbed "The Twinkie Defense" trial even though that was never truly claimed at all.  This was one of many times that the media put a spin on things that made a case or defense seem ridiculous.  One of my pet peeve cases involving this sort of thing is the "Hot Coffee" case against McDonald's.  The difference here is that murder was involved.

On November 27, 1978, city supervisor, Dan White climbed through the basement window of city hall with a loaded gun and 10 extra rounds of ammunition to avoid metal detectors at the entrance.  He entered the office of Mayor George Moscone.  On November 10th White had resigned his commission on the Board of Supervisors stating the low pay, the fact he was not allowed to supplement the pay through the police or fire department (both former jobs of White's) and "corrupt politics" within the city.  Four days later he tried to reverse his resignation and had approached Moscone about being reinstated.  It seems that at first Moscone was going to allow him to come back but there was opposition from other supervisors, including Harvey Milk, Moscone decided not to reinstate White.  When he returned on the 27th he attempted to get Moscone to change his mind.  When Moscone declined, White shot him four times, once each in the shoulder and chest and twice in the head.  White then walked out and went to Harvey Milk's office.  It was here that he shot him five times.  The medical examiner determined the last two shots were with the gun directly against the skull.  White left Milk's office and went to the police station, where he formerly worked, and turned himself in confessing to the shooting.  

It was largely believed that the shooting, especially of Milk, centered about White's adversity to homosexuality.  Milk was the first openly gay person elected to a major position in politics.  White's district was in an area that was full of white, middle class residents who appeared to be hostile towards the homosexual community.  At least that is what was reported.  As far as gay rights White did not appear to take a huge stand one way or another, voting for and against things it seemed fairly equally.  It also appears that White and Milk worked well together for quite some time.  Their first conflict appeared to be over a juvenile rehab center that was proposed by the church in White's district. White was against it, Milk was for it.  However, Milk was not the only supervisor or person with political standing that disagreed with White on this issue and it appears that after this White seemed to have conflict with many.  

At his trial his attorney argued he White suffered from diminished capacity due to depression and that he was not capable of premeditation, thus not guilty of the charge of 1st degree murder. So where did the Twinkie's come in??  I am unsure the word Twinkie was ever literally mentioned at the trial and if it was it was used as an example.  A psychiatrist testified for the defense that White had been a very health conscious person most of his life. It had not been until the last year or so that he had began consuming "junk" food and sweets.  The point the psychiatrist was making was that there was a personality change from White that leaned towards depression, not that eating sweets causes one to commit murder. The media in their wonderful twisting of words turned it into the "Twinkie Defense."  Along with the psychiatrist that testified there were also a string of people, including former co-workers from the police department that testified for White's general character.  Officers even talked about how climbing in the window was not necessarily abnormal because considering their job required they carried a weapon they too climbed in windows to avoid the lines and time to go through the metal detectors.  I personally do not think that just because their job required them to carry a weapon and then go through a metal detector gives them the right to climb in a window to avoid it, I believe it had nothing to do with this case.  First, White was no longer a police officer, in fact he was no longer a city supervisor.  On November 27th he was a common every day citizen that had no special privileges upon entering City Hall.  In fact, I found nothing saying he even had a meeting with Moscone that day scheduled.  However, through out the trial excuses like this, and many others were fed to the jury.  Subsequently the jury bought the story and instead of being found guilty of 1st degree murder White was convicted on the charge of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 7 years.

The sentence outraged the gay community and many riots began around the city. The verdict and the outrage that it incited, California lawmakers enacted laws that prevented the defense of "diminished capacity." After serving five of his seven years it was announced that in January 1984 White would be receiving parole.  Once again the gay community was outraged and there were rallies planned on the day of his release.  Fearing for his life, official decided to secretly release him the day prior and move him to Los Angeles to live during the year he was to served probation.  Once that was over he asked to return to San Francisco.  The current mayor made a public announcement denouncing his return but White ignored that and returned.  Less than a year later, on October 2, 1985 White was found by his brother in the garage of his home.  He had connected a garden hose to the exhaust of his vehicle and into the window.  He left several notes, none of which mentioned the shooting and had never publicly expressed remorse.  He was 39 years old. 

White has been referred to as "the most hated man in San Francisco's history."  In subsequent years, after his death, it was reported that after his release White had confessed to at least one person that his intention on the day of November 27, 1978 was not only to kill Moscone and Milk but also two other officials that he had issues with.  Many point to this as proving that the shooting was premeditated and reinforced those who believed this all along.  What it also may have tried to prove is that the killing of Harvey Milk may have had less to do with his homosexuality than had been perceived.  

One thing that while doing the research on this case that struck me was that I saw several times that White was considered to be the "All American Boy."  He had been raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, and had finished first in his high school class (although I saw reports that he was expelled from his previous school in his junior year but no answer as to why other than a reference to "violence.").  He went on to work for the police department but it was said that he quit after he reported another office for abuse after an arrest the other officer made. I found it curious that they were able to still find officers that had worked with him willing to testify for him.  It appears that most of the information I found would skim over the "bad" things about White.  Nothing really claims he was a wonderful guy, or did not have issues, but even in the conflict over the juvenile rehab center there are just reports that he had conflicts with others.  There does not appear to be a reason why (other than they disagreed) or what kind of conflicts occur, just simply that he no longer had a good relationship with people.  It is said he initially resigned his post partly due to "corrupt" politicians, but again, nothing specific is stated.  In one line it will say that he was possibly a bit wishy-washy when it came to his stance on gay rights, but then it would describe the district he represented and in one statement it was said he thought of himself "as a defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics."  So which was it?  Was he taking a large stance for these issues or wasn't he?  Supposedly his supporters were the ones who convinced him to go back to Moscone to ask to be reinstated after resigning four day prior.  It just does not seem to add up that unless he was giving the community members what they wanted that they would have rallied for him and continued to support him.  I also wonder if the reports that he supposedly planned to kill two other public employees why then he only murdered Moscone and Milk and then immediately went to the police station and confessed.  The person that he supposedly told this to says that White confessed this in 1985 to him but he said nothing until about 1989. Was it true? Or, was this person making excuses once again for White and wanted to make it appear that White did not kill Milk because of his homosexuality?  Add to this we are to believe this was all manifested on the basis that he was not reappointed to a job that he had resigned from, that had prevented him remaining in either of the two occupations he apparently enjoyed and that provided him more financial security.  Something just does not feel right to me about this.  It is my feeling despite what seems to be a public attempt to make excuses for his actions both at the trial and after his death it appears that White may have had a aura of entitlement.  I believe that the gay community may have gotten it right in the beginning. I think White was a man who was raised in strict religious home, who had appeared to have succeeded for the most part most of his life in everything he tried, and had this "All American Boy" image to live up to. Whether he was a religious and perceived or even was truly against the homosexual community may have mattered less than the image he felt he must portray both publicly and privately. In the end, not only did the shooting reinforce the bad image of White, so did the trial.  Maybe he believed he could get off completely; maybe he did not realize what sort of reaction there would be to even the lower charge.  Could he have truly believed that he could walk into City Hall, murder two people and walk back into his good boy image and lifestyle?  We will never know!




Comments

  1. Because of the times, homosexuality was not so well received as it is in today's society. Harvey Milk was the poster boy for tolerance in the city government, and by all accounts the supervisors all worked well together EXCEPT Dan White. That is why he left his position and then was shamed into asking for it back by his wife and friends. HE was NEVER going to get reinstated at any time, and he knew that so he planned to take a gun, and climb through the window he had previously gone to open, and murder the 2 people he felt were to blame. The ONLY reason he got off so easy is because Harvey Milk was a gay man. If his sexuality was left out of the trial (as it should have been), he would have gone down for murder 1. Back then people were scared of homosexuals, sop it was easy for the depression/junk food defense to actually work....but he got the death sentence he deserved all along....delivered by karma!

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  2. You will feel a lot differently about the McDonald case if you watch this:
    http://www.hotcoffeethemovie.com/Default.asp

    That poor woman.

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