Civil Rights History: On This Day, Harvey Milk’s Killer Avoids Murder Charge Using “Twinkie Defense”

For the lesbian and gay communities, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, today marks a day in civil rights history which sparked great protests known as the “White Night Riots.” On May 21, 1979, former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White was convicted of manslaughter for the premeditated murders of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

In 1977, Harvey Milk, a prominent, gay businessman in the Castro District of San Francisco, won election to the city’s Board of Supervisors.  Milk’s election was the first time an openly-gay candidate won an office in the State of California.  Milk is pictured below in a photo taken in 1978 and courtesy of Wikipedia.

Alongside Milk served Dan White.  White was a conservative veteran and former fireman.  The relationship between the two officials was, at best, stormy.  The relationship began to sour further when White voted against a gay-rights ordinance sponsored by Milk.  The gay-rights ordinance did pass, however, despite White’s vote.

In November 1978, White resigned from the S.F. Board of Supervisors, claiming that he could not support his family on his salary.  George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco at the time, told White that he would reappoint him to the Board if White chose to come back.  Mayor Moscone is pictured below courtesy of Google Images.

Shortly after resigning, White did change his mind.  However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Moscone did not reappoint White.  One argument that is proposed is that Moscone was under pressure from Milk not to reappoint White because of White’s no vote on Milk’s gay-rights ordinance.

On November 27, 1978, the day after Moscone’s refusal to reappoint him, White armed himself with a loaded pistol and went to City Hall.  He gained access to the building by entering a window in order to avoid a weapons check.  White then walked into Moscone’s office and shot the Mayor four times.  He then walked down the hall to Milk’s office, shooting Milk five times.  One gun shot was point-blank to the head and is depicted graphically in the 2008 movie, “Milk,” starring Sean Penn.

At White’s subsequent criminal trial, the defense argued that White had diminished capacity and, thus, could not have premeditated the killings.  The evidence offered for White’s depression was that he had been eating excessive amounts of junk food.  Seizing on this evidence, the media dubbed White’s defense, the “Twinkie defense.”  As a result of this defense, White escaped a murder conviction and was, instead, convicted of manslaughter.  He was sentenced to a mere five years, serving only two of them before returning to San Francisco and committing suicide.  White has been referred to as the “most hated man in San Francisco history.”

In 1982, under Proposition 8, and as a result of the negative publicity surrounding White’s case and others, the “diminished capacity” defense was abolished in the State of California.

Wikipedia has excellent articles about Harvey Milk, George Moscone, Dan White, and the “Twinkie defense.” If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to check out those articles as a next step.  If you have not yet seen the movie “Milk,” then I most strongly encourage you to see it.  Sean Penn‘s portrayal of Harvey Milk, as well as Josh Brolin’s portrayal of the troubled Dan White, is a must see.  A word of warning, however – I personally found the end scene, the assassination of Milk quite haunting even though, from a graphics viewpoint, the scene is definitely not your typical Hollywood scene.  It is, in some ways, all the more powerful and disturbing because of that fact.

R.I.P. Harvey (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978).  We have not forgotten, and never will.

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