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The Dan White Trial

My courthouse pat-down

from Reporter’s Note Book by Duffy Jennings.

One February morning in 1979 city editor Dave Perlman called me up to his desk. “Bill German (the managing editor) and I want you to cover the Dan White trial,” he said. “We think you’ve earned it, and you know the case and all of the key people better than anyone else.”

On April 21, I wrote a long advance piece about the upcoming trial, a “scene-setter,” we called it, outlining the people who would be involved, the prosecution and defense strategies, the political environment behind the killings, and Dan White’s background. It began:

Daniel James White, a single-minded political neophyte in a city of widely varying social and political values, goes on trial for his life next week, charged with the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in city hall last November 27.

For White, a fierce competitor who calls himself ‘a believer in the American dream that a person can do anything he wants when he puts his mind to it,’ this will be the toughest of all his personal battles.

And for the city, the trial of the 32-year-old former supervisor for killing two popular elected officials will be a test of its own ideals – that government can function objectively even when torn asunder from within.

The article noted that security at the trial would be inordinately tight. Reporters were coming from around the nation and everyone entering the courtroom would pass through a metal detector and be patted down by county sheriff’s deputies.

A thick shield of bulletproof glass would separate the gallery from the forward arena occupied by the judge, prosecutors, attorneys, defendant, and the jury. Prosecutor Thomas Norman said he expected to call some twenty witnesses, while White’s lawyer, Douglas Schmidt (who had represented one of the Golden Dragon restaurant shooters) planned to call twice that many. The trial was expected to last four to six weeks.

Judge Walter Calcagno had reserved two wooden chairs inside the glass shield for reporters from the city’s two daily newspapers—me and my colleague from the Examiner, the highly respected Jim Wood. The remaining press were to sit in the gallery behind the glass or in an overflow auditorium down the hall, where three twenty-one-inch, closed-circuit TV monitors were set up to view the proceedings.

On April 25, I reported to Department 21 of the Superior Court at the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street for the first day of jury selection.

At the end of each day’s testimony, generally around four-thirty p.m., I drove the six blocks back to the Chronicle offices and wrote my account for the next morning’s paper. It generally took me about forty-five minutes to write five or six triple-spaced pages, or some fifteen hundred words, for the first edition. For later editions, I added more material and cleaned up my earlier work.

The case went to the jury at 10:02 a.m. on Wednesday, May 16. They deliberated five hours before retiring to dinner and then to their hotel. The deliberations continued through the weekend.

On Monday, May 21, the jury foreman sent word to the judge that they had reached their verdict.

I returned to my seat in the courtroom for the conclusion of the trial. What we heard stunned the courtroom, the media, and the entire city.

When everyone was seated, Judge Calcagno asked the jury foreman, Bechtel company executive George Mintzer, if the jury had reached its verdicts.

“Yes, it has, your Honor,” Mintzer replied. He handed the papers to the bailiff, who gave them to the judge. After reading the verdicts in silence, the judge gave them to the clerk to be read aloud.

“We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of the crime of voluntary manslaughter in the death of George Moscone,” she read. Nearly everyone in the courtroom, spectators, and journalists alike, gasped audibly. Almost no one, except perhaps Doug Schmidt, expected this outcome. Voluntary manslaughter was the lightest possible conviction the jury could return. It delivered the same verdict for the killing of Harvey Milk. White faced a maximum sentence of seven and two-thirds years. With time served and good behavior, he could be free in five.

I dashed out of court, ran into the nearby press room and called the office to relay the stunning verdict. Then I returned to the newspaper building, composing my lead paragraphs in my head on the way. I sat at my desk, still feeling the adrenaline rush of the verdict much the same way I felt when Feinstein had announced the murders at city hall six months earlier. I collected my thoughts, reviewed my notes from the courtroom and wrote the verdict story for the first edition. Much of it was pre-written during the jury deliberations in order to have the background already in type if the verdict came in close to deadline. Other reporters helped by calling people involved in the trial for comments, which we inserted into the story. I then joined other Chronicle reporters covering what became known as the White Night Riot, the city’s reaction to this shocking verdict.

© 2019 by Duffy Jennings. All Rights Reserved.

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After reading the verdicts in silence, the judge gave them to the clerk to be read aloud. “We, the jury, find the defendant..."