November 27, 1978 – 40 years ago today, an act of jealousy and hatred changed the face of a city. The Moscone–Milk assassinations were the killings of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who were shot and killed in San Francisco City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. White was angry that Moscone had refused to reappoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, from which he had just resigned, and that Harvey Milk had lobbied heavily against his reappointment. These events helped bring national notice to then–Board President Dianne Feinstein, who became the first female mayor of San Francisco and eventually U.S. Senator for California.
White was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder. The verdict sparked the “White Night riots” in San Francisco, and led to the state of California abolishing the diminished capacity criminal defense. It also led to the urban legend of the “Twinkie defense”, as many media reports had incorrectly described the defense as having attributed White’s diminished capacity to the effects of sugar-laden junk food. White committed suicide in 1985, a little more than a year after his release from prison.
White was charged with first-degree murder with special circumstance, a crime which potentially carried the death penalty. White’s defense team claimed that he was depressed at the time of the shootings, evidenced by many changes in his behavior, including changes in his diet. Inaccurate media reports said White’s defense had presented junk food consumption as the cause of his mental state, rather than a symptom of it, leading to the derisive term “Twinkie defense”; this became a persistent myth when, in fact, defense lawyers neither argued junk food caused him to commit the shootings and never even mentioned Twinkies. Rather, the defense argued that White’s depression led to a state of mental diminished capacity, leaving him unable to have formed the premeditation necessary to commit first-degree murder. The jury accepted these arguments, and White was convicted of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter.
The verdict proved to be highly controversial, and many felt that the punishment so poorly matched the deed and circumstances that most San Franciscans believed White essentially got away with murder. In particular, many in the gay community were outraged by the verdict and the resulting reduced prison sentence. Since Harvey Milk had been homosexual, many felt that homophobia had been a motivating factor in the jury’s decision. This groundswell of anger sparked the city’s White Night riots.
The unpopular verdict also ultimately led to a change in California state law which ended the diminished-capacity defense.
And so 40 years later, we still live in a strange and baffling world – where down is up and up and down. Maybe it’s always been that way. As a reminder, here is that special newscast from KPFA in Berkeley from the night of November 27, 1978.