November 27, 1978: San Francisco Mayor Gunned Down, or a Tale of the Twinkie Defense

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A Brief History

On this date, November 27, 1978, Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down by an irate former supervisor.

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find mentally distraught Daniel White was a police officer prior to becoming a supervisor, and after quitting that job due to ill will generated by his reporting on another officer for beating a suspect, White became a firefighter for the city.

Elected as a supervisor in 1977 (similar to councilman in other cities), White had to give up his firefighter job as holding those two positions was not allowed.  At first getting along with other supervisors, including Harvey Milk, he later had a falling out with them over political disagreements and apparently felt that city politics were rife with corruption.  White resigned his post, and unable to support himself without a job became increasingly bitter and disjointed.

On November 27, 1978, White climbed through a city hall window in order to by-pass the metal detectors by the doors and went to see the mayor to ask that his supervisor resignation be rescinded.  When the mayor said no, White shot him dead!  White then reloaded and walked to Harvey Milk’s office and shot Milk five times, ending his killing spree by turning himself in to the police without a fight.  Confessing to the crimes, there was no doubt he had done them.

Charged with the murders, White pleaded what has become known as the “Twinkie Defense,” claiming he could not think properly due to eating junk food so much that it affected his brain.  The jury bought into this diminished capacity claim and saw other erratic behavior as proof that the depressed and distraught White could not have premeditated the murders.  Other employees even testified that climbing through windows was a regular practice at city hall!

Found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder, White was given a 7 year sentence, of which he served 5 years.  Harvey Milk having been an openly gay man was seen by the gay community (and others) as a victim of a hate crime and riots ensued.  Although White left prison a broken man and committed suicide 2 years later, Harvey Milk lives on as perhaps the most famous martyr of the gay cause.  This incident also had a lasting effect by elevating Diane Feinstein to the office of mayor which provided the platform for her eventual powerful role as a senator from California.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think the Twinkie Defense is a valid argument?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

A movie starring Sean Penn as Milk, Milk, was later made as a major motion picture.

Epstein, Robert, dir.  The Times of Harvey Milk (The Criterion Collection).  Criterion Collection, 2011.  DVD.

Van Sant, Gus, dir.  Milk.  Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, 2009.  DVD.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.