Lawyers for a 14-year-old Oxnard boy accused of gunning down gay classmate Lawrence King are mounting a novel defense, saying the district attorney's process for charging youths as adults is so flawed that the case should be dismissed and refiled in Juvenile Court.
Ventura County prosecutors last year charged eighth-grader Brandon McInerney as an adult, two days after he allegedly walked into English class, took his seat and shot King, 15, twice in the back of the head.
Prosecutors called the Feb. 12 slaying a hate crime amid reports that the two boys had sparred over King's romantic attraction to McInerney. The charges brought against McInerney could put him in prison for at least 51 years.
Scott Wippert, one of McInerney's attorneys, said the Ventura County district attorney's office abused its power by failing to consider such circumstances as McInerney's youth, his hard family life and the failure of school officials to deal with rising tensions between the two boys.
Wippert requested documents outlining prosecutors' reasoning for bringing adult charges, but the district attorney refused to provide them.
"Someone like Brandon, who was barely 14 and had no juvenile record, should have gone before a juvenile judge, who would look at certain factors to determine whether he is suitable for rehabilitation," Wippert said. "But the D.A. is saying, 'I don't have to explain myself to anyone.' That's too much power. We as a community should be able to make sure what they are doing is right."
A Ventura County Superior Court judge this month rejected Wippert's argument. But Wippert said he will appeal Judge Rebecca Riley's decision.
His argument challenges Proposition 21, overwhelmingly passed in 2000 by California's voters. The Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act lowered the age at which adult charges can be filed from 18 to 14, and gave prosecutors authority to decide which cases should be filed in adult court.
Filing decisions on serious youth crimes previously had been left to judges sitting on the Juvenile Court bench. Under the old charging system, if a judge found that a youth could be rehabilitated, even murder cases remained in Juvenile Court. But a judge could also recommend that a youth be charged as an adult.
Maeve Fox, the prosecutor on the case, dismissed Wippert's defense as a last-ditch attempt to derail the murder case. A pretrial hearing to determine whether the case should move forward is set for Jan. 26.
"We make charging decisions on a case-by-case basis," Fox said. "And probably the most important criterion in every instance are the facts of the case."
Ventura attorney Michael Mehas, a juvenile justice advocate, said he welcomes the challenge to Proposition 21. He said the law is flawed because it provides no check and balance on a district attorney's filing decisions.
"This isn't a hate crime," he said. "This is about a kid who was being humiliated in front of his peers and who didn't have the maturity to respond in a proper manner."
Witnessed by a classroom of students and a teacher, the events of Feb. 12 are in little dispute.
McInerney arrived for school that morning and sat behind King as their English class got started, witnesses have said.
McInerney withdrew a hidden handgun, pointed it at King's head and fired twice, witnesses and police said. He then fled the school, dropping the weapon as he left. Police apprehended the youth a few blocks from the school.
Mehas said prosecutors should have taken into account reports of conflict between the two boys. King, who had declared himself gay and sometimes wore makeup and girls' accessories to school, was reportedly brazen in his efforts to gain McInerney's romantic interest.
School officials were aware of trouble between the boys but allegedly did little to quell the problem, according to student witnesses and media reports. McInerney's parents were divorced, and he frequently shuttled between their homes.
McInerney's father had previously faced charges of domestic abuse and his mother had struggled with drug addiction, court records show. Despite that, McInerney made good grades in school and had no trouble with the law until he walked into E.O. Green Junior High that morning, his lawyer said.
While incarcerated at Juvenile Hall awaiting trial, he has been a "model kid," Wippert said.
"The staff loves him," he said. "He's not a monster like the D.A. is portraying him."
Fox, the prosecutor, said many other youths with troubled upbringings have managed to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. The severity of McInerney's crime calls for punishment, not rehabilitation, Fox said.
"Shooting someone in the back of the head to me is an execution-style murder," she said. "He thought about it. He planned it. And then he did it."