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Moscone-Milk assassinations

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Title: Moscone-Milk assassinations  
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Subject: November 27, 1978, 1985, San Francisco, Diminished responsibility, Dianne Feinstein, White Night riots, San Francisco City Hall, I Fought the Law, Randy Shilts
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Moscone-Milk assassinations

Moscone–Milk assassinations
Location San Francisco, California, United States
Date November 27, 1978 (1978-11-27)
Attack type Assassination, spree shooting
Weapon(s) Revolver
Deaths 2
Perpetrator Dan White

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 re-appoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, from which White had just resigned, and that Milk had lobbied heavily against his re-appointment. 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] White committed suicide in 1985, a little more than a year after his release from prison.

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, including Milk and Carol Ruth Silver. 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 liberal 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.


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 first floor 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. Moscone fell to the floor and White approached Moscone, poised his gun six inches from the mayor's head, and fired two additional bullets into Moscone's ear lobes, 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. Witnesses later reported that they heard Moscone and White arguing, later followed by the gunshots that sounded like a car backfiring.

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 proceeded 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, 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, then fired a fourth bullet at Milk's head, killing him, followed by 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. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White."[9][10][11]

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.

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 probably would have survived with proper medical attention. However, the head wounds brought instant death without question, particularly because White fired at very close range.[12]

Trial and its aftermath

Further information: Twinkie defense and White Night riots

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 deed and circumstances that most San Franciscans believed White essentially got away with murder.[13] 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 with 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][14] 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. He later added that at no time did White express remorse in any form at the deaths of Moscone and Milk.

San Francisco Weekly has referred to White as "perhaps the most hated man in San Francisco's history."[13]

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.

Execution of Justice, a play by Emily Mann, chronicles the events leading to the assassinations. The play opened on Broadway in March 1986 and in 1999, it was adapted to film for cable network Showtime, with Tim Daly portraying White.

The Moscone–Milk assassinations and the trial of Dan White were lampooned by the Dead Kennedys with their re-written version of "I Fought the Law" which appeared in their 1987 compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. The photo on the front cover of their 1980 album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which shows several police cars on fire, was taken during the "White Night Riots" of 21 May 1979.

The assassinations were the basis for a scene in the 1987 science fiction movie RoboCop in which a deranged former municipal official holds the mayor and others hostage and demands his job back.[15]

In 2003, the story of Milk's assassination and of the White Night Riot was featured in an exhibition created by the GLBT Historical Society, a San Francisco–based museum, archives and research center to which the estate of Scott Smith donated Milk's personal belongings that were preserved after his death. "Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr" was shown in the main gallery in society's Mission Street location; the emotional centerpiece was a section displaying the suit Milk was wearing at the time of his death.[16]

In 2008 the film Milk depicted the assassinations as part of a biographical story about the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. The movie 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.

In January 2012, the Berkeley Repertory Theater premiered Ghost Light, a play exploring the effect of Moscone's assassination on his son Jonathan, who was 14 at the time of his father's death. Written by Tony Taccone, the production was directed by Jonathan Moscone.

See also



  • Weiss, Mike (2010). Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, Vince Emery Productions. ISBN 978-0-9825650-5-6
  • Milk, Harvey (2012). The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words, Vince Emery Productions. ISBN 978-0-9725898-8-8

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