Moscone–Milk assassinations: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Moscone–Milk assassinations

San Francisco Examiner's front page for November 27, 1978
Location San Francisco, California, United States
Date Monday, November 27, 1978
Attack type Assassination, spree shooting
Weapon(s) revolver
Death(s) 2
Perpetrator Dan White

The Moscone–Milk assassinations were the killings of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and openly gay 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 re-appoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, which White had just resigned, and that Milk had lobbied heavily against his re-appointment. Milk is widely considered to be the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office, leading some to consider his murder a hate crime. These events helped bring national notice to then-Board President Dianne Feinstein, who became mayor of San Francisco and eventually U.S. Senator for California.

White was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter, rather than of 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.[1 ][2]


Preceding events

White had been a San Francisco police officer, and later a firefighter. He and Milk were each elected to the Board of Supervisors in the 1977 elections, which introduced district-based seats and ushered in the "most diverse Board the city has ever seen." The city charter prevented anyone from holding two city jobs simultaneously, so White resigned from his higher paying job with the fire department.

With regard to business development issues, the 11-member board was split roughly 6-5 in favor of pro-growth advocates including White, over those who advocated the more neighborhood-oriented approach favored by Mayor Moscone. Debate among the Board members was sometimes acrimonious and saw the conservative White verbally sparring with liberal supervisors Milk and Carol Ruth Silver amongst others. Much of Moscone's agenda of neighborhood revitalization and increased city support programs was thwarted or modified in favor of the business-oriented agenda supported by the pro-growth majority on the Board.

Further tension between White and Milk arose with Milk's vote in favor of placing a group home within White's district. Subsequently, White would cast the only vote in opposition to San Francisco's landmark gay rights ordinance, passed by the Board and signed by Moscone in 1978. Dissatisfied with the workings of city politics, and in financial difficulty due to his failing restaurant business and his low salary as a supervisor, White resigned from the Board on November 10, 1978. The mayor would appoint his successor, which alarmed some of the city's business interests and White's constituents, as it meant Moscone could tip the balance of power on the Board as well as appoint a liberal representative for the more conservative district. White's supporters urged him to rescind his resignation by requesting reappointment from Moscone and promised him some financial support. Meanwhile Moscone was lobbied not to reappoint White by some of the more progressive city leaders, most notably Milk, Silver, and then-California assemblyman Willie Brown.[1 ][3]

On November 18, news broke of the mass deaths of members of Peoples Temple in Jonestown. Prior to the group's move to Guyana, Peoples Temple had been based in San Francisco, so most of the dead were recent Bay Area residents, including Leo Ryan, the United States Congressman who was murdered in the incident. The city was plunged into mourning, and the issue of White's vacant Board of Supervisors seat was pushed aside for several days.

The assassinations

George Moscone

Mayor George Moscone.

Moscone ultimately decided to appoint Don Horanzy, a more liberal federal housing official, rather than to re-appoint White. On Monday, November 27, 1978, the day Moscone was set to formally appoint Horanzy to the vacant seat, White packed his loaded service revolver from his work as a police officer and ten extra rounds of ammunition into his coat pocket, and had an unsuspecting friend drive him to San Francisco City Hall. Once there, White slipped into City Hall through a basement window, avoiding City Hall's metal detectors. He proceeded to the mayor's office, where Moscone was conferring with Brown.

White requested a meeting with the mayor and was allowed to see him when Moscone's meeting with Brown ended. As White entered Moscone's outer office, Brown exited through a different door. Moscone met White in the outer office, where White asked again to be re-appointed to his former seat on the Board of Supervisors. Moscone declined, and their conversation turned into a heated argument over Horanzy's pending appointment.[4]

Wishing to avoid a public scene, Moscone suggested they retire to a private lounge attached to the mayor's office, so they would not be overheard by those waiting outside. As Moscone lit a cigarette and proceeded to pour two drinks, White pulled out the revolver. He then fired shots at the mayor's shoulder and chest, tearing his lung. Without a sound, Moscone fell to the floor. White then approached Moscone, poised his gun six inches from the mayor's head, and fired two additional bullets into Moscone's ear lobes and ultimately his brain, killing him instantly.[5] While standing over the slain mayor, White removed the four empty cartridges from his gun and refilled it with hollow-point bullets, which he specifically chose to murder Harvey Milk with. Witnesses later reported that they heard Moscone and White arguing, later followed by the gunshots that sounded like a car backfiring.

Harvey Milk

Supervisor Harvey Milk

Dianne Feinstein, who was then President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, saw White quickly exit Mayor Moscone's office from a side door and called after him. White sharply responded with "I have something to do first."[5]

White scurried to his former office, and intercepted Harvey Milk on the way, asking him to step inside for a moment. Milk agreed to join him.[6] Once the door to the office was closed, White positioned himself between the doorway and Milk, effectively blocking the doorway. White pulled out his revolver, and opened fire on Milk. The first bullet hit Milk's right wrist, as he tried to protect himself. White continued firing rapidly, hitting Milk twice more in the chest, sending him staggering to his knees and turning slightly towards the window. Taking careful aim, White blasted a fourth bullet at Milk's head execution style, killing him. White then approached Milk, who lay face down on the floor in a pool of blood, and fired a fifth shot into his skull at close range.[7]

White fled the scene as Feinstein entered the office where Milk lay dead. She grabbed his wrist for a pulse, her finger entering Milk's bullet wound. Horrified, Feinstein was shaking so badly she required support from the police chief after identifying both bodies.[8] Feinstein then tearfully announced the murders to a stunned public, stating: "As President of the Board of Supervisors, it's my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. [background noise] The suspect is Supervisor Dan White."[9][10]

White left City Hall unchallenged and eventually turned himself in to Frank Falzon and another detective, former co-workers at his former precinct. He then recorded a statement in which he acknowledged shooting Moscone and Milk, but denied premeditation, despite his choice to carry a gun, to carry extra ammunition, to reload after the first killing, and to circumvent metal detectors.

Aftermath of the shootings

An impromptu candlelight march started in the Castro leading to the City Hall steps. Tens of thousands attended. Joan Baez led "Amazing Grace," and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus sang a solemn hymn by Felix Mendelssohn. Upon learning of the assassinations, singer/songwriter Holly Near composed "Singing for Our Lives," also known as "Song for Harvey Milk."

Moscone and Milk both lay in state at San Francisco City Hall. Moscone's funeral at St Mary's Cathedral was attended by 4,500 people. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. Milk was cremated and his ashes were spread across the Pacific Ocean. Dianne Feinstein, as president of the Board of Supervisors, succeeded to the Mayor's office, becoming the first and only woman to occupy the office.

The coroner who worked on Moscone and Milk's bodies later concluded that the wrist and chest bullet wounds were not fatal, and that both victims would have survived. However, the "coup de grâce" head wounds brought instant death without question, particularly because White fired at close range.[11]

Trial and its aftermath

Cover of The San Francisco Examiner on November 28, 1978

White was tried for first degree murder with special circumstance, a crime which potentially carried the death penalty in California. White's defense team claimed that he was depressed, evidenced by, among other things, his eating of unhealthy foods (inaccurate media reports that White's defense had presented junk food consumption as the cause of his mental state, rather than a symptom of it, would give rise to the legal term "Twinkie defense"). 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 found guilty of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter.

The verdict proved to be highly controversial, and many felt that the punishment so poorly matched the brutal killings of two defenseless public servants that most San Franciscans believed White essentially got away with murder.[12] In particular, many in the gay community were outraged by the verdict and the resulting reduced prison sentence. Since 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.

White was paroled in 1984 and committed suicide less than two years later. In 1998, the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco magazine reported that Frank Falzon, a homicide detective with the San Francisco police, said that he met White in 1984. Falzon said that at that meeting, White confessed that not only was his killing of Moscone and Milk premeditated, but that he had actually planned to kill Silver and Brown as well. Falzon quoted White as having said, "I was on a mission. I wanted four of them. Carol Ruth Silver, she was the biggest snake ... and Willie Brown, he was masterminding the whole thing."[3][13] Falzon, who had been a friend of White's and who had taken White's initial statement at the time White turned himself in, said that he believed White's confession.

San Francisco Weekly has referred to White as "perhaps the most hated man in San Francisco's history."[12]

Cultural depictions

Journalist Randy Shilts wrote a biography of Milk in 1982, The Mayor of Castro Street, which discussed the assassinations, trial and riots in detail. The 1984 documentary film The Times of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In 2008 the biopic Milk was a critical and commercial success, with Victor Garber portraying Moscone, Sean Penn playing Milk and Josh Brolin playing White. Penn won an Oscar for his performance and Brolin was nominated.

See also


  1. ^ a b Pogash, Carol (November 23, 2003). "Myth of the 'Twinkie defense': The verdict in the Dan White case wasn't based on his ingestion of junk food". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-08-10.  
  2. ^ Snopes: The Twinkie Defense
  3. ^ a b Weiss, Mike. (September 18, 1998). "Killer of Moscone, Milk had Willie Brown on List", San Jose Mercury News, Page A1
  4. ^ Turner, Wallace (November 28, 1978). "Suspect Sought Job", The New York Times, p. 1.
  5. ^ a b Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. MacMillian Publising, p. 268
  6. ^
  7. ^ Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. MacMillian Publising, p. 269
  8. ^ Flintwick, James (November 28, 1978). "Aide: White 'A Wild Man'", The San Francisco Examiner, p. 1.
  9. ^ "The Times of Harvey Milk". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-05-12.  
  10. ^ This is cited from both the book and the actual news footage of Feinstein making the announcement. The NBC Network news report from John Chancellor, David Brinkley and Rick Davis of KNBC on November 27, 1978 can be found at Feinstein's announcement begins at 2:20.00
  11. ^ Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. MacMillian Publising, p. 282
  12. ^ a b Dan White's Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia. By John Geluardi. San Francisco Weekly. Published January 29, 2008.
  13. ^ Weiss, Mike. (October 1998). "Dan White's Last Confession", San Francisco Magazine


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address