October 20, 2013

Documentary explores town's polarization over transgender murder

Forensic psychologist key element in gay panic defense

For 20 minutes, Brandon McInerney sat patiently behind Larry King in their junior high school computer classroom. Then, the budding white supremacist pulled out a handgun and shot his transgender classmate twice in the back of the head. Larry died two days later, on Valentine's Day.

The 2008 murder polarized the community of Oxnard, California. The chasm widened during the highly publicized trial three years later, when a pair of private defense attorneys managed to turn the homicide into a reverse civil rights case for beleaguered heterosexuals and white people. With the help of a forensic psychologist, they were able to convince seven out of 12 jurors that Larry King had provoked his own death through his gender transgression. After the mistrial, several jurors became outspoken advocates for Brandon, wearing "Save Brandon" bracelets and raising money for his retrial.

Director Marta Cunningham
"He [Brandon] was solving a problem," explained juror Diane Michaels, an OR nurse. “Where are the civil rights of the one being taunted by another person who’s cross-dressing? He had no one he could turn to because the school was so pro-Larry King’s civil rights, but where was Brandon’s civil rights?"

"It was the high heels, the makeup, the behavior," agreed Karen McElhaney, a fellow juror and a surgical nurse, as the jurors bonded over wine and hors d'oeuvres at one of their homes.

Through such candid interviews with family members, teachers, students (including two eyewitnesses), attorneys and jurors, first-time film director Marta Cunningham explores the conflicting ideologies regarding both gender diversity and social tolerance that Larry King’s murder graphically exposed. Cunningham spent four years and collected 350 hours of footage for Valentine Road (the name of the street on which Larry is buried), a Sundance award-winner debuting on HBO. She hopes that schools will use the film as an educational tool to promote tolerance. 

Forensic psychologist blames the victim

This blog's readers will be especially interested in the role of the forensic psychologist, who helped sell the victim-blaming theme at trial. The testimony of Donald Hoagland gave the jurors an "expert" imprimatur on which to hang their hat.

 ABC News trial coverage featuring voice of 
forensic psychologist Donald Hoagland as he testifies

"What Larry was doing was an extreme form of bullying, an extreme form of sexual harassment," Donald Hoagland told the filmmaker. "Guys don’t hit on guys. Brandon was thinking he needed to get rid of Larry. He needed to save everyone from this scourge that had come upon this school."

At the trial, Hoagland testified that the cross-dressing victim's flirtation threw 14-year-old Brandon into a fit of homicidal rage. He testified that King's declaration that he was changing his name to Leticia triggered a dissociative state in which Brandon temporarily lost track of reality, according to the Ventura County Star.

The fatal flaw with that gay panic theory of the crime is that McInerney made advance plans to kill King. He announced his plan to several people the day beforehand, according to testimony during the eight-week trial, and also acquired and loaded the gun and brought it with him to school. He shot King twice in the back of the head during a first-period class.

Jurors who voted against a murder conviction said that Larry King's request to be called by a girl's name gave Brandon a "green light" to execute him. One juror even wrote to the judge after the trial to protest the "witch hunt" against the killer, citing the victim’s "long history of deviant behavior."

"They made a murder victim the cause of his own murder," marvels Detective Dan Swanson, a hate crime expert who testified at the trial.

Prosecutor Maeve Fox, who ultimately agreed to a plea deal of 21 years for Brandon, said the case exposed the deep layer of intolerance in society, an intolerance that is even carried into the jury box.

Unfortunately, the documentary gives short shrift to another central factor in community support for Brandon. A decision by the prosecutor's office to try the 14-year-old suspect as an adult led to widespread public opposition. Brandon faced 51 years to life in prison if convicted in adult court. A coalition of dozens of gay and lesbian groups even joined the chorus of pleas to try the boy as a juvenile.

Cunningham's direction is understated. Rather than hitting the viewer over the head with a message or point of view, she allows the characters to speak for themselves, interspersing their dialogue with artful sketches, news footage and school surveillance video. The resulting nuanced tale forces audience members to think for themselves about the moral implications of the tragedy.

Ultimately, Valentine Road is a sad and haunting story about two lost boys struggling for identity in a violent world. For the two boys were alike in many ways, both of them abused, neglected and lacking competent adult mentorship as they navigated the perilous journey to adulthood. Larry had been bullied since the third grade for his effeminacy; Brandon was dependent on a bullying father who physically abused him, while his methamphetamine-abusing mother was homeless. 

Yet for all its pathos the film also shines a ray of hope. Even as the defense team vigorously promoted a victim-blaming narrative, youths from the local community came together to honor Larry King and to use his death to promote a message of tolerance. One can only hope that the film will be shown far and wide, and will contribute to that worthy endeavor.


RELATED STORY: "The Hidden War Against Gay Teens," Alex Morris, Rolling Stone, Oct. 10, 2013

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My prior coverage of the case: 
Hat tip: John Lewis

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