Hate Crime on “Valentine Road”

By Noah Forrest

In 2008 in Oxnard, California, a just-turned fourteen-year-old boy, Brandon McInerney, stood up in a classroom and shot a classmate, Lawrence King.  The shots were fatal.

This event is at the center of Marta Cunningham’s documentary, “Valentine Road,” which premiered on HBO on October 7 and is available On Demand and at HBO Go.

Ms. Cunningham’s film takes an even-handed look at the lives of both boys prior to the tragedy and the toll it took on their family, friends, and teachers.

Larry identified as transgender. Brandon was a bully who taunted Larry and others who seemed vulnerable.  Remarkably, the movie shows that the boys had more in common than anyone could have guessed, each suffering abuse a from young age at the hand of a family member or guardian.

Though there is evidence that Brandon was alternately threatened or enraged by Larry’s feminine clothes and alter-ego, Valentine’s Day brought things to a boiling point.

Larry asked Brandon, in front of Brandon’s friends, to be his Valentine.

In the film, a psychologist who testified for the defense explains that Brandon felt humiliated, even sexually harassed, by Larry’s request.   Brandon wasn’t mature enough, says the expert, to handle this unwanted attention.

The film raises many legal questions.  Brandon brought the gun to school with the express intention of shooting Larry. Should he have been tried as an adult?  Was killing Larry a hate crime?  LASIS investigates.

Thirteen years ago, on the heels of the Columbine school shootings and an increase in young gang violence, California passed Proposition 21, allowing children 14 to 17 be tried as adults for heinous crimes such as murder or certain sex offenses.  In practice, this means prosecutors decide on a case by case basis whether to file in an adult or juvenile court.  The juvenile is given no hearing prior to a prosecutor bringing charges.

Deputy District Attorney Maeve Fox chose to try Brandon as an adult for the crime of premeditated murder as a hate crime.

California has a couple of hate crime laws on the books, but the one invoked by Ms. Fox is “The Ralph Civil Rights Act,” which prohibits violence against anyone on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.  “Violence” includes, “threats,” “name-calling,” “swastika paintings,” and “physical assault.”

Brandon McInerney drew swastikas in his notebooks, called at least one African-American girl the n-word, and killed a classmate  because of his sexual identity.  The film shows us that Brandon had a mentor who was a neo-Nazi and his girlfriend, who wants to marry him even post-shooting, laments in the film  that in her town, “you don’t see a lot of fully-white people.”  It would seem Lawrence King’s killing neatly fits the description of a hate crime.  California is certainly not loath to convict people of hate crimes.

But this was Oxnard. Both the shooter and the victim had completed a unit at their junior high school about tolerance not long before the shooting, reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  Their teacher appears in the film and says it was “normal” for  students to run around saluting “Heil [Hitler]” after that lesson.  The same teacher says that it had been only a matter of time before somebody took Larry out back and gave him a whooping, though she admits that killing him was, perhaps, uncalled for.

Not a single juror found Larry’s death to have been the result of a hate crime.  Seven of them felt Brandon should be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the other five felt he was guilty of either first- or second-degree murder.  A mistrial was declared.

The filmmakers spoke to several of the jury members about this.  The film shows three middle-aged women in a suburban kitchen discuss different kinds of wine available at Trader Joe’s, and reminisce about how they bonded as jury members.  Despite being instructed to treat the defendant as an adult, all of the women talk about how Brandon seemed like a “good boy.”  One of the jurors earnestly declares that yes, the shooting may have been premeditated, but it wasn’t first-degree murder.

I suppose jury instructions weren’t very clear, or this woman refused to listen.  California law clearly states that “willful, deliberate, and premeditated” acts that result in death qualify as  first-degree murder.

The film makes clear that these three female jury memebers felt an affinity for Brandon, dismissing the pictures of swastikas he drew as something “kids do.”  One of the women (Juror 11) even wrote a letter to the judge on retrial protesting Brandon’s innocence, with copies to both the DA and “God.” (The filmmakers did not say whether God’s copy was delivered or returned to sender).

Brandon’s defense team did a great job for their client, painting Larry as a flamboyant tease and Brandon as a quiet with no criminal record.  But as the film shows us, Brandon could be very violent indeed — video surveillance shows Brandon instigating physical fights while incarcerated in otherwise peaceful surroundings. One of his attorneys, Robyn Bramson, remembers hearing of Larry’s murder and immediately feeling terrible…for Brandon.  She desperately wanted to represent this shooter, and after getting to know him, says she knows that he is just a misunderstood young man, who is truly “good.”

She even had her forearm tattooed with her client’s name.

In November of 2011, Brandon’s attorneys were able to plea bargain for a 21-year prison sentence without parole. If he manages not to buy himself more time, he will be released before he turns 40.   When he does, it’s doubtful he will emerge as a productive member of society.

Trying him as a juvenile, and sending him to a facility that would work to rehabilitate him would have been a better option.

The film ends with a look at the shooting’s aftermath. We hear from Larry’s friends who miss him. And we are treated to a close-up of Brandon as celebrates with his family,  receiving a high school diploma in his juvenile detention center, triumphant.


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