Daniel James White Trial: 1979
Schmidt capitalized on what had been a lackluster prosecution by turning the trial into an examination of White's mental state. Several psychiatrists testified that the defendant had not really meant to commit murder but had been driven to it by factors beyond his control. Much was made of White's prodigious intake of junkfood and candy—what came to be known as the "Twinkies Defense"—in which an abnormally high blood sugar count was blamed for the mayhem that he had wrought. It was a novel but effective defense.
But most effective of all were Schmidt's repeated portrayals of White as an upstanding young man, an ex-fireman and ex-police officer, someone who had been defeated by a corrupt system he was powerless to change. Schmidt cunningly marshaled public resentment against both politicians and homosexuals into one neat package. He found nothing unusual in the fact that White was carrying a gun on the fateful day (As an ex-cop, could anything have been more natural?), or that he had crawled in through a window at City Hall to, as one psychiatrist stated, avoid "embarrassing the officer at the metal detector." Dan White, Schmidt said, was acting under an "irresistible impulse to kill," and as such, under California law, was entitled to a verdict of manslaughter.
The jury agreed. On May 21, 1979, they returned two verdicts of voluntary manslaughter. Judge Walter Calcagno handed down the maximum sentence, seven years, and eight months imprisonment. With time off for good behavior, Dan White was looking at freedom in five years.
When news of the verdicts hit the streets, an already incendiary situation exploded. Five thousand gays marched on City Hall to protest, and a full-scale riot ensued. Inside the jail, the target of their rage, Dan White, lay on his cell cot, ears plugged against the bedlam.
Over concerted gay protests, White was paroled in 1984. But liberty proved even more onerous than incarceration. Plagued by demons that just wouldn't leave him alone, on October 21, 1985, Dan White wrote the final chapter in this tragedy by committing suicide.
The Dan White trial became a rallying call for homosexuals all across America. In their eyes, the jury had semi-officially sanctioned gay murder. Overlooked was the fact that George Moscone was a happily married family man. Somehow that got lost in the politics. Even so, it is difficult to dispute their firmly held belief that had White killed Moscone alone, he probably would still be behind bars.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Fitzgerald, Frances. "The Castro-II." New Yorker (July 28, 1986): 44-63.
Robinson, P. "Gays In The Streets." New Republic (June 9, 1979): 9-10.
Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Weiss, Mike. Double Play. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1984.