Brandon McInerney, left, was 14 when he shot gay classmate Larry King. Now…
When he was just 14, Brandon McInerney walked into an Oxnard classroom, took his seat, pulled a .22-caliber handgun out of his backpack and shot the student sitting in front of him. Then he tossed the weapon to the floor and walked out.
The victim, Lawrence King, was an openly gay student who McInerney reportedly thought had a crush on him.
This week McInerney, looking more like an adult at the age of 17, will be tried in a high-profile murder case that rallied the gay community and triggered calls for greater protections of young homosexuals on school campuses.
Prosecutor Maeve Fox says she will outline a straightforward case in opening arguments set to begin Tuesday in a Chatsworth courtroom. The Oxnard teenager carefully planned and carried out the Feb. 12, 2008, execution of his eighth-grade classmate, she said. He brought a gun to school, positioned himself directly behind King during a morning computer class and fired twice into the back of the 15-year-old's head.
McInerney then dropped the gun and walked out the door in front of two dozen horrified classmates and a teacher, Fox says.
Prosecutors have added a hate-crime allegation, arguing that McInerney's actions were spurred in part by a hatred of gays, in line with his alleged neo-Nazi sympathies. If convicted, he faces 53 years to life.
McInerney is being tried in adult court under the provisions of Proposition 21, which allows prosecutors to bring murder charges against juveniles as young as 14 for certain serious crimes.
McInerney's lawyers, Scott Wippert and Robyn Bramson, say their client doesn't deny the killing. But they argue it was voluntary manslaughter because the adolescent was provoked by King's repeated sexual advances.
Fellow students say the two had clashed for days over King's expressing his attraction to McInerney. King, who was living in a children's shelter because of problems at home, had recently gone to school wearing eye makeup and women's accessories.
McInerney was humiliated by King's advances, his attorneys said. He came from a violent home and decided to end his misery in a way that made sense to him — with a gun. He shot King "in the heat of passion caused by the intense emotional state between these two boys at school," Bramson said last week outside the courthouse, where jury selection was underway.
A voluntary manslaughter conviction would prevent a life sentence, Wippert said, making McInerney eligible for release before he's 40. Even a finding of second-degree murder would virtually assure that he wouldn't be eligible for parole until he was in his 70s, his lawyers said.
The defense will stress McInerney's age at the time of the crime, and may summon a psychologist to talk about the maturity and critical-thinking abilities of a 14-year-old. In essence, they will argue that McInerney didn't have the maturity to deal with King's schoolyard taunts.
"Age will explain his behavior and his response," Wippert said. "How a 14-year-old reacts is different than how an older person would react."
The defense could face a challenge in portraying McInerney as a naive youth. At the time of the shooting, he looked young and sweet-faced. In court recently, the defendant was a tall, lanky young man dressed in crisp Oxford shirts and khaki pants.
Wippert said he's not worried that jurors won't be able to see the confused young boy of three years ago.
"Part of the job of the jury is to understand that this happened when they were in middle school," Wippert said.
Pretrial court proceedings have delayed the case as McInerney changed lawyers and defense attorneys petitioned to remove the Ventura County prosecutors and a judge from the case, claiming they were biased. Those motions were denied.
The defense sought a change of venue and the case was first transferred to Santa Barbara County before settling in the Chatsworth courthouse in Los Angeles County. A defense request to unseal King's juvenile records was denied by a California appeals court.
The killing triggered an emotional outpouring that included candlelight vigils across the country and a day of silence in April organized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a New York-based group dedicated to preventing harassment of young gays and lesbians on school campuses.
Students at the school, E.O. Green Junior High, organized a peace march attended by hundreds in the days after the shooting. Several states have passed laws specifically outlawing bullying of homosexuals at school, and California strengthened its own anti-bullying laws.
Still, bullying of gays remains a problem. After a spate of suicides by homosexual youths last fall, including that of 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, activists, celebrities and others posted YouTube videos with the It Gets Better Project to inspire hope in struggling youths.
Eliza Byard, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's executive director, said progress is being made in communities and schools that proactively address issues of bias. The network will be closely monitoring the McInerney case, she said.
"It's a coda to an unbelievably tragic situation," she said. "This is a case where at least two young lives were destroyed."