Brandon Spencer ought to be considered an object lesson by wannabe gangsters carrying guns.
The 21-year-old was sentenced Friday to 40 years to life in prison for shooting into a crowd waiting in line for a
He wounded four people — including his target — but seems to think he ought to get leniency because nobody died.
Spencer threw a tantrum in the courtroom when the judge announced his sentence, crying and banging his head on a table, like a 2-year-old sentenced to time-out.
"I'm sorry for what happened, but I can't spend the rest of my life in prison," he said between sobs. He's not really a gangbanger, he told the judge. He had dreams and plans.
But he also had a gun — and no regard for the dreams and plans of anyone in that crowd.
Prosecutors say Spencer, then 19, showed up for the party at USC's student center and spotted a member of a rival gang whom he blamed for a shooting that wounded him the year before. Spencer left and returned with a gun, intending to even the score.
He fired on his rival, Geno Hall, emptying his revolver as Hall fled and panicked party-goers scattered. Hall and three other young people were wounded. Neither Spencer nor any of his victims were students at USC.
His attorney argued that Spencer wasn't the shooter — and if he was, well, he only intended to take out Hall, so he shouldn't be punished for inadvertent victims.
Spencer's father, who attended every session of the two-week trial, blamed racism for the verdict. Prosecutors and USC officials were trying to railroad his son, he said. They "want to keep all these black men off the USC campus," he told the Los Angeles Sentinel.
I'm not buying that. What they don't want on campus — and what none of us want in our neighborhoods — is hoodlums carrying guns.
Spencer's family and friends packed the courtroom Friday. They'd bombarded the judge with letters lauding his good character and blaming bad influences and "gang-infested" neighborhoods for his poor choices.
A former mayor of Inglewood who used to coach Spencer in Little League described him as "no menace to society." A sergeant in the LAPD's 77th Division who once mentored Spencer considered him "a nice, respectable young man." A former Inglewood school board member called Spencer a "student leader" who deserves another chance.
If that's true, it just amplifies what was already a tragedy. Because of one impulsive gesture, a young man with a steady job, no criminal record and plenty of people in his corner will spend most of the rest of his life behind bars.
I admit that when I read The Times' coverage and watched the video of Spencer's tearful meltdown, I felt sorry for him. That lasted until I shared the story with my 25-year-old daughter. She's seen more gunplay in the last 10 years than I've seen in my whole life.
When you can't attend a dance on campus without some fool ruining things, it's time to send a message, she said: "Pull a gun, go to jail. This is real life, not a video game."
She and her friends are tired of having their social lives circumscribed by gun-wielding troublemakers.
Twice, in high school and in college, they had to flee a party because someone saw a weapon or heard gunshots. At her 21st birthday celebration in an upscale Hollywood club, a stranger pulled a gun and fired across the dance floor. It sounded like a champagne cork popping. But she saw the muzzle flash and knew to hit the floor. She doesn't go out much anymore.
It would be naive to write this off as just a gang or ghetto problem. There are young men carrying guns in Granada Hills and Glendale, Pasadena and Pacific Palisades.
"It's not just cool anymore, it's fashionable," said Khalid Shah, whose Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace foundation works to stem gang violence. "They're flashing guns with no idea what they're getting themselves into."
The sentencing hearing wasn't the first time Spencer lost control in court. When he was convicted by a jury in February, he raised an angry ruckus — shouting and cursing and struggling with deputies, who had to handcuff and wrestle him to the floor.
Friday's 40-year sentence — the most lenient the judge could give him — apparently shook Spencer out of tough guy mode.
LAPD Det. Sal LaBarbera wasn't surprised by the conflicting emotional displays. He's been arresting gang members for more than 20 years. "In front of their [boys] they are going to act tough," he said. "But when we talk to them, a good percentage of the time they cry, they break down. They act like the 17- and 18-year-olds they are."
For all their bravado on the streets, they're afraid of life behind bars, without the equalizing power of a weapon.
"There's a lot of denial when they're out there with a gun, looking for a rival. They're not thinking of the consequences," LaBarbera said. "They're not thinking they'll get caught."
And they expect witnesses to be too afraid to testify against them. In fact, none of Spencer's victims identified him from the stand — not even Hall, though the two had reportedly engaged in a hostile exchange just before the shooting occurred.
Still, it took the jury only three hours to convict Spencer. I hope his gang associates are taking note of that.
And I hope his future cellmates haven't heard about his courtroom sobbing. "To cry like a baby? That's going to follow him right back into the jail and through the state prison system," LaBarbera said.
"The hardened gang members know enough to act tough in public."
That's another lesson one young gang member may have learned too late.