This month marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who wanted to decriminalize marijuana, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in America. November also marks the release of a film about the case titled Milk. Although a former policeman, homophobic Dan White, had confessed to the murders, he pleaded not guilty. I covered his trial for the Bay Guardian.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I said “Thank you” to the sheriff’s deputy who frisked me before I could enter the courtroom. However, this was a superfluous ritual, since any journalist who wanted to shoot White was prevented from doing so by wall-to-wall bulletproof glass.
Defense attorney Douglas Schmidt did not want any pro-gay sentiment polluting the verdict, but he wasn’t allowed to ask potential jurors if they were gay, so instead he would ask if they had ever supported controversial causes–“like homosexual rights, for instance.” One juror came from a family of cops — ordinarily, Schmidt would have craved for him to be on this jury — but the man mentioned, “I live with a roommate and lover.”
Schmidt phrased his next question: “Where does he or she work?”
The answer began, “He”–and the ball game was already over–“works at Holiday Inn.”
Through it all, White simply sat there as though he had been mainlining epoxy glue. He just stared directly ahead, his eyes focused on the crack between two adjacent boxes on the clerk’s desk, Olde English type identifiying them as “Deft” and “Pltff” for defendant and plaintiff. He did not testify. Rather, he told his story to several psychiatrists hired by the defense, and they repeated those details in court.
At a press conference, Berkeley psychiatrist Lee Coleman denounced the practice of psychiatric testimony, labeling it as “a disguised form of hearsay.”
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J. I. Rodale, health food and publishing magnate, once claimed in an editorial in his magazine, Prevention, that Lee Harvey Oswald had been seen holding a Coca-Cola bottle only minutes after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He concluded that Oswald was not responsible for the killing because his brain was confused. He was a “sugar drunkard.” Rodale, who died of a heart attack during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show — in the midst of explaining how good nutrition guarantees a long life — called for a full-scale investigation of crimes caused by sugar consumption.
In a surprise move, Dan White’s defense team presented a similar bio-chemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on compulsive gobbling down of sugar-filled junk-food snacks. This was a purely accidental attack. Dale Metcalf, a former member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who had become a lawyer, told me how he happened to be playing chess with Steven Scheer, an associate of Dan White’s attorney.
Metcalf had just read Orthomolecular Nutrition by Abram Hoffer. He questioned Scherr about White’s diet and learned that, while under stress, White would consume candy bars and soft drinka. Metcalf recommended the book to Scherr, suggesting the author as an expert witness. In his book, Hoffer revealed a personal vendetta against doughnuts, and White had once eaten five doughnuts in a row.
During the trial, one psychiatrist stated that, on the night before the murders, while White was “getting depressed about the fact he would not be reappointed [as supervisor], he just sat there in front of the TV set, bingeing on Twinkies.” In my notebook, I immediately scribbled “the Twinkie defense,” and wrote about it in my next report.
This was the first time that phrase had been used, and it was picked up by the mainstream media.
In court, White just sat there in a state of complete control bordering on catatonia, as he listened to an assembly line of psychiatrists tell the jury how out of control he had been. One even testified that, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”
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The Twinkie was invented in 1930 by James Dewar, who described it as “the best darn-tootin’ idea I ever had.” He got the idea of injecting little cakes with sugary cream-like filling and came up with the name while on a business trip, where he saw a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes. “I shortened it to make it a little zippier for the kids,” he said.
In the wake of the Twinkie defense, a representative of the ITT-owned Continental Baking Company asserted that the notion that overdosing on the cream-filled goodies could lead to murderous behavior was “poppycock” and “crap” — apparently two of the artificial ingredients in Twinkies, along with sodium pyrophosphate and yellow dye — while another spokesperson for ITT couldn’t believe “that a rational jury paid serious attention to that issue.”
Nevertheless, some jurors did. One remarked after the trial that “It sounded like Dan White had hypoglycemia.”
Doug Schmidt’s closing argument became almost an apologetic parody of his own defense. He told the jury that White did not have to be “slobbering at the mouth” to be subject to diminished capacity. Nor, he said, was this simply a case of “Eat a Twinkie and go crazy.”
When Superior Court Judge Walter Calcagno presented the jury with his instructions, he assured them access to the evidence, except that they would not be allowed to have possession of White’s .38 special and his ammunition at the same time. After all, these deliberations can get pretty heated. The judge was acting like a concerned schoolteacher offering Twinkies to students but witholding the cream-fillng to avoid any possible mess.
Each juror originally had to swear devotion to the criminal justice system. It was that very system that had allowed for a shrewd defense attorney’s transmutation of a double political execution into the mere White Sugar Murders. On the walls of the city, graffiti cautioned, “Eat a Twinkie — Kill a Cop!”
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On the 50th anniversary of the Twinkie, inventor Dewar said, “Some people say Twinkies are the quintessential junk food, but I believe in the things. I fed them to my four kids, and they feed them to my 15 grandchildren. Twinkies never hurt them.” A year later, the world’s largest Twinkie was unveiled in Boston. It was 10 feet long, 3 feet 6 inches high, 3 feet 8 inches wide, and weighed more than a ton.
In January 1984, Dan White was released from prison. He had served a little more than five years. The estimated shelf life of a Twinkie was seven years. That’s two years longer than White spent behind bars. When he was released, that Twinkie in his cupboard was still edible. But perhaps, instead of eating it, he would have it bronzed.
In October 1985, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. He taped a note to the windshield of his car, reading, “I’m sorry for all the pain and trouble I’ve caused.”
I accepted his apology. I had gotten caught in the post-verdict riot and was beaten by a couple of cops. My gait was affected, and ultimately, as a result I now walk with a cane. At the airport, I have to put the cane on the conveyor belt along with my overnight bag and my shoes, but then I’m handed another cane to go through the metal detector. You just never know what could be hidden inside a cane.
Paul Krassner is the author of Who’s to Say What’s Obscene: Politics, Culture and Comedy in America Today, to be published by City Lights Books in July 2009.
Click here to read Krassner’s original coverage of the Dan White Trial from the Guardian in 1979.
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