Three years ago, at the age of 14, Brandon McInerney walked into class and shot a gay classmate, Lawrence King, with a .22-caliber handgun he had in his backpack and then calmly walked out of the room. McInerney is now being tried as an adult and faces 53 years to life, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The prosecution claims that McInerney is a neo-Nazi and is calling the murder a hate crime. However, witnesses testified that McInerney mostly hung out with the black athletes at his school, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, drawing into question the neo-Nazi claims. In fact, a black friend testified at the trial that he was unaware of any Nazi affiliations. Regardless, McInerney’s views on race are irrelevant to the case. However, it is clear that his actions were motivated by homophobia, which would certainly make it a hate crime.
The defense is saying that McInerney was provoked by King’s repeated advances, making the crime manslaughter, not murder. Yet in order to commit the crime he had to smuggle a gun into school, which would make it a preplanned and deliberate crime. Furthermore, being propositioned, even aggressively, is not a provocation that justifies violence, let alone premeditated lethal violence.
The case is being called the highest profile gay bashing since Matthew Shepard was murdered. It clearly highlights how acceptable homophobia still is in our culture and how far we are still are from having schools that are safe for all students. However, the case also brings up numerous other troubling issues, such as when, if ever, should a child be tried as an adult, or how did a 14-year-old have access to a gun in the first place? There is also the question of whether some adults fueled events leading up to the murder or if they could have done a better job in preventing the bullying and murder.
Let’s start with the obvious. Murder is wrong. Bullying is wrong. Homophobia is wrong. A well-adjusted, mature, empathetic and compassionate person, even at the age of 14, does not do such things. So what was wrong with McInerney? According to the Wikipedia account, his mom was a speed freak and his father was violent, shooting her in the arm on one occasion and attempting to strangle her on another. His father ultimately left, but he called child protective services five times out of concern for the safety of his son, accusing the mother of running a drug house.
Considering his home-life, McInerney may very well have lacked maturity, compassion and empathy. Furthermore, he may have been suffering stress, anxiety and even PTSD from the violence, aggression and lack of emotional support at home. This does not justify his crime nor take away his culpability. However, a child growing up under such conditions might very well lack the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with any anxiety producing situation, particularly unwelcome advances by another person. One might reasonably question whether trying him as an adult and imprisoning him for 53 years or longer is fair or just of even in the public interest.
While McInerney’s situation is tragic, his victim’s is even more so. King had been bullied about his sexuality since the third grade. The Wikipedia account said that the bullying intensified in 7th grade, when he started to wear women’s clothing to school. However, there was something else tragic about King’s life that may have been independent of the bullying. He seemed to have an obsessive and dangerous need for attention. For example, he supposedly taunted other boys, saying “I know you want me,” and a Newsweek expose said that he told others in the locker room while they were dressing that he thought they were “hot.” He also apparently walked into the middle of a basketball game to ask McInerney to be his Valentine in front of his friends, which led McInerney’s friends to tease him and may have been the tipping point for McInerney.
Such provocative behavior by a middle school child of any gender or sexual orientation is often an indication that there are deeper issues. In King’s case, there were. When he was still a baby, his father abandoned him and his mother was addicted to drugs, according to the Newsweek article, leading to his adoption at the age of two. He was later prescribed medicine for ADHD and diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a condition in which a child fails to form relationships with caregivers. He was also in trouble numerous times for vandalism and shoplifting and there were reports that his adopted father was beating him.
While it is clear that both King and McInerney had troubled childhoods, one might also wonder about the other children at the school, many of whom knew that something terrible was in the works and did nothing to stop it. For example, McInerney tried to recruit some of his friends to help him assault King. They refused, but they also did not report his threats to the police or school officials. A friend even testified that he said he was going to bring a gun to school a day before the shooting, yet the friend said nothing to the authorities (Sacramento Bee). The Newsweek expose said that McInerney told King’s friends to say goodbye to him because they would never see him again, yet even his own friends did not report the threats.
King’s adopted father and some of the teachers at the school accused former Assistant Principal Joy Epstein, who is openly gay, of pushing her “gay agenda” by encouraging King’s flamboyant behavior. However, this is a frivolous and desperate attempt to oversimplify a tragedy and redirect blame onto an easy target and it is a distraction from the fact that many adults hold some culpability for the affair. For example, how did a 14-year-old boy have unsupervised access to a gun in the first place? According to the Wikipedia account, McInerney had used the murder weapon for target practice in the past. Did he obtain it from his father, who had once shot his mother?
King’s family sued the school, accusing them of contributing to his death by allowing him to wear makeup and girls’ clothing to school. However, the school could not legally stop him from wearing girls’ clothing. Furthermore, dress codes should not be based on other peoples’ bigotry or fears of how bigots might react. Rather, schools and society at large must ensure the safety of everyone, even if they behave in ways that make some people uncomfortable. It is here where the school seems to have failed. Considering the history of bullying and King’s provocative and outrageous behavior, it would seem unlikely that teachers and administrators were unaware of the threats to King or the conflict with McInerney. Indeed, there had been a confrontation between the two the day prior to the shooting and many teachers were aware of it, but apparently they did not see the potential for it to escalate into something much worse.