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Daniel James White Trial: 1979 - Double Execution, Unique Defense

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980

Defendant: Daniel James White
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr
Chief Prosecutor: Thomas F. Norman
Judge: Walter F. Calcagno
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trial: April 25-May 21, 1979
Verdict: Guilty, Voluntary Manslaughter
Sentence: 7 years, 8 months.

SIGNIFICANCE: Celebrity murder trials inevitably attract massive media coverage. What made the Dan White case unique was the volatile mix of politics, revenge, and homosexual intolerance. Many wondered if that intolerance spilled over into the jury room. How else could they explain such a verdict based on a defense of impaired mental capacity resulting from eating too much "junk food?"

On November 27, 1978, 32-year-old Dan White entered the San Francisco City Hall by crawling in through a basement window. He adopted this unorthodox means of access to avoid negotiating a metal detector in the main entrance, for reasons which would soon become clear. Once inside, White breezed through the familiar corridors of power. He was on a retrieval mission. Earlier that summer, this ambitious young politician had impetuously resigned his post as a city supervisor, citing financial difficulties; now he wanted that job back. Only one man could make that possible: Mayor George Moscone. White reached Moscone's office and was invited in.

The two men talked, or rather argued, for several minutes. As the exchange heated up, Moscone made it plain that he had no intention of reappointing White, who had become a political liability, whereupon White drew a. 38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver that had been tucked into his belt and pumped four bullets into his former boss. After reloading, White hunted down long-time political foe Harvey Milk, another city supervisor. Five shots ended Milk's life. White ran from the building, only to surrender to the authorities one hour later.

Police guarded White closely, fearing possible retaliation. They had good cause for concern. Milk, one of San Francisco's most militant gay activists, had many supporters, all of whom loathed White and the homophobic attitudes he had espoused when in office. Anything was possible in such a volatile situation.

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