August 10, 2011

Gay panic defense: Slain boy accused of provocation

The closely watched murder trial of Brandon McInerney took an unfortunate turn this week, as a self-appointed expert testified that 15-year-old Larry King contributed to his own demise by flirting with his killer and by wearing makeup and women’s clothes, thereby disrupting the middle school where he was shot to death.

The witness, family therapist Stephen Irshay, said he contacted McInerney’s defense team to offer his assistance after reading about the case in the newspaper. He said he got involved because he didn't think the defendant would have shot King without provocation.

The nature of Irshay’s expertise is not clear from the trial coverage in the Ventura County Star. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) who was just appointed as assistant director of an MFT program at an online school, Touro University Worldwide. Expert witnesses must have special knowledge or experience to offer -- based on their education, training or experience -- that is beyond the realm of common knowledge.

The use of the gay panic defense is no big surprise, because the case is no whodunit. In front of 25 to 30 eyewitnesses, McInerney shot King twice in the back of the head during a first-period class on Feb. 12, 2008. The day before, he had told several people of his plan, acquired a gun and loaded it.

Prosecutors allege that the killing was a hate crime, and that white supremacist ieology played a role. McInerney's attorneys deny this. Rather, they say McInerney -- who had just turned 14 -- was pushed to the emotional breaking point by King's sexual harassment of him.

“This is a very troubled young man pushed to the edge," defense attorney Scott Wippert told the jury during his opening statement. "He was pushed there by a young man who repeatedly targeted him with unwanted sexual advances."

Despite his youth, McInerney is being tried as an adult. He faces 51 years to life in prison if convicted. He turned down a plea bargain that would have netted him a 25-to-life sentence. For a teenager, I'm sure, either option sounds like an equal eternity.

Ironically, his prosecution as an adult came in spite of a lobbying campaign by a coalition of 27 sexual minority groups. "We call on prosecutors not to compound this tragedy with another wrong,” wrote the coalition. "We support the principles underlying our juvenile justice system that treat children differently than adults and provide greater hope and opportunity for rehabilitation." The letter cites research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that children tried as adults are more likely to commit another crime than those tried as juveniles.

Does flirtation justify execution?

The gay panic defense plays on an antiquated cultural belief that a heterosexual male is justified in using violence to defend himself from flirtation by a gay man. In my own research with antigay hate crime perpetrators, I found that many noncriminal young men believed they had a right to physically assault gay men whom they perceived as flirting with them.

However, as some of the young women pointed out during my focus groups on antigay violence back in the mid-1990s, this logic is never used to justify a girl or woman violently attacking a flirtatious man.

In my research, I conceptualized antigay violence as existing on a continuum. At one end are verbal taunts that, sadly, remain socially acceptable among many adolescents. At the other end are severe acts of violence. These tend to be committed not necessarily by those with the most hostile attitudes toward gay people but, rather, by those with the most severe histories of violence or abuse.

McInerney's case fits this model. The defendant was raised in a chaotic and violent household and subjected to physical and sexual abuse. His father, now deceased, used to beat him for fun, defense attorney Wippert told the jury. The father shot McInerney’s mother, then married her and put bullets in her Christmas stocking as a joke.

According to reports back in 2008, McInerney was one among many students at the Southern California middle school who routinely teased and taunted King.

Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act

The gay panic defense is especially effective in cases where the victim was transgender, due to widespread societal revulsion against gender nonconformity. Use of the defense by the killers of Gwen Aurajo, a transgender teen, led to a backlash in California in the mid-2000s. The state passed the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. This law allows for a special instruction to jurors, reminding them not to allow bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity to affect their deliberations. The prosecutor in the McInerney case, Maeve Fox, said she will ask that this instruction be read to the jury.

The jury instruction is brilliant. Rather than seeking to ban the gay panic defense outright, a strategy that might be unconstitutional and would only serve to drive it underground, it helps to shine a spotlight on the underlying biases that the defense promotes.

This strategy is more effective than an outright ban, says legal scholar Cynthia Lee in a lengthy and well-reasoned 2009 treatise in the UC Davis Law Review.
Suppression of gay panic claims, like suppression of bad speech, will not eliminate the underlying stereotypes and assumptions that make such claims persuasive. Open discussion and debate is a better way to combat those assumptions.

The law can and should play a role in mediating th[e] cultural dispute [over the status of homosexuality] – not by dictating what jurors can and cannot consider, but by making sure jurors are cognitively aware of what exactly is at stake when a gay person is the victim of fatal violence, and the person who killed him claims he did so in response to an unwanted sexual advance.
We won't have to wait long to hear whether the defense will help young McInerney or, more likely, backfire. The case is expected to go to the jury in about two weeks.

Related blog posts:
The Ventura County Star has detailed trial coverage and a timeline of the drawn-out legal machinations.

Hat tip: John L.

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