WESTMINSTER — A high school dropout from Huntington Beach has admitted shooting a black man, but his defense attorney said Thursday the killing was in self-defense and had nothing to do with the man's race.
Attorneys for Jonathan Kennedy, 19, and his co-defendant, Robert Wofford, 17, of Laguna Niguel, also say their clients have been unfairly portrayed by police as white supremacists.
"I think when all the evidence is in, it will show Mr. Kennedy did fire the gun, but it was in self-defense," Deputy Public Defender Sharon Petrosino said. "The evidence will also show this had nothing to with race. Mr. Kennedy is not a skinhead."
Kennedy and Wofford appeared in court Thursday to plead not guilty to murder charges for the death of Vernon W. Flournoy, and an allegation that the victim was targeted because of his race. Flournoy, 44, of Huntington Beach was on his way to get dinner Sept. 15 when he was gunned down. He was not armed.
Kennedy also pleaded not guilty to two counts of attempted murder and hate crime allegations in the shooting of two Latino men one month earlier. But Petrosino said authorities have the wrong man in the August shootings of Angel Campos Silia and Juan Vergara, both 22.
"He was not there, he wasn't even around," said Petrosino, who declined to discuss her client's alibi.
Kennedy was attacked Wednesday by inmates at the Orange County Men's Jail as the door to his single cell opened. Petrosino said it could not be ruled out that the attack was linked to the charges against Kennedy. Kennedy has been moved to a different location, officials said.
Defense attorney Pat McNeal, who represents Wofford, said he is also concerned that labeling his client a "skinhead" could trigger attacks from other inmates. McNeal said his client has previously associated with people who subscribe to white supremacist beliefs, but his client does not. Wofford is being tried as an adult because of the severity of the charges.
Rhody Kennedy, Kennedy's mother, said he is not a skinhead and that he was beaten up in the dispute with Flournoy. She said police labeled her son a skinhead because he had a shaved head, but she said her son was only trying to get rid of a bad dye job.
"This was not racism whatsoever," she said. "This was the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time. No one mentions that my son was beaten up too."
McNeal said he wants to see the hate allegations dismissed and the attempted-murder charges reduced to a lesser offense at a Dec. 16 preliminary hearing in Municipal Court in Westminster.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Tanizaki, who filed the new hate crime charges Thursday, disagreed with the defense assessment of the cases.
"We wouldn't have filed the charges if the evidence wasn't there," he said.
The prosecutor said authorities are continuing to investigate whether Kennedy and Wofford are linked to skinhead groups.
Flournoy's wife, Sharon, declined to discuss the new charges Thursday. But Eugene Wheeler, a spokesman for 100 Black Men of Orange County, commended the Huntington Beach Police Department for its work on the case and the Orange County district attorney's office for filing the toughest charges possible.
"The police did a vigorous and complete investigation and we are very pleased with that," Wheeler said. "We believe a crime like this should get the maximum."
Before hate crime charges were formally filed Thursday, the case had been especially disturbing to minority activists who contend prosecutors are not filing hate crime allegations in all eligible cases and who fear that hate crimes are on the rise in Orange County.
Although they note that the hate crime charge carries a maximum of four years in certain cases, they feel a powerful warning sent by the charge is more important than the punishment.
"We want people to know this kind of a crime is unacceptable, and we are concerned about the frequency with which this is occurring in Orange County," Wheeler said. "It's only four years (in prison), but it sends a strong message."