The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Execution of Justice is a two-act play centered on the 1978 murders of George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and board of supervisors member Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Much of the play is set in the courtroom at the first-degree murder trial of Dan White, the man accused of the murders. In the scenes of White’s trial, it becomes increasingly clear that justice is being “executed”—not in the sense of being carried out, but in the sense of being destroyed—by the wily defense lawyer and the biased judge.

At the trial, Thomas Norton, attorney for the prosecution of Dan White, seems to think the argument for first-degree murder is so obvious that it is unnecessary for him to make a strong case against the accused. He also fails to anticipate the support for White from those who share his antigay views. Douglas Schmidt, the defense lawyer, virtually wins the case in the jury selection process: He allows no one who is homosexual, an ethnic minority, or liberal-minded to serve on the jury. In his opening remarks to the jury, Schmidt establishes the idea that although White did the shooting, the question the jurors should consider is “Why?” Schmidt repeatedly leads the defense witnesses to say what he wants them to say and undermines the prosecution witnesses by asking if they are gay and belittling their professional expertise. The judge overrules most of Thomas Norton’s early objections, and Norton essentially gives up in his role as prosecutor.

Schmidt also tells the jurors that because Dan White’s recent diet consisted of nothing but “junk food” such as chips, candy, and Twinkie cream-filled cakes, he was suffering from diminished capacity to make rational decisions. This “Twinkie defense” proves effective for Schmidt. The jury finds White guilty only of the reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter, and the judge imposes a prison sentence of seven years and eight months with the possibility of earlier parole. Once the verdict and sentence are announced, gays and other protesters march and riot, followed immediately by the police responding in San Francisco’s historically gay district, the Castro, by clubbing down homosexuals on the street and in gay bars. The multiple connotations of “justice” and “execution” are evident throughout the entire play.