As 14-year-old Brandon McInerney prepares to be arraigned today inthe slaying of 15-year-old Lawrence "Larry" King at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, his lawyer is advancing a defense that at least partly blames school officials for the tragedy.
Educators should have moved aggressively to quell rising tensions between the two boys, which began when King openly flirted with McInerney, said William Quest, the Ventura County assistant public defender representing the eighth-grader.
Instead, administrators were so intent on nurturing King as he explored his sexuality, allowing him to come to school wearing feminine makeup and accessories, that they downplayed the turmoil that his behavior was causing on campus, Quest said in an interview this week.
Verbal confrontations between King and several adolescent boys over King's self-proclaimed homosexuality had been rising to the point that teachers were "repulsed" by school leaders' failure to take action, Quest said.
McInerney, he said, felt humiliated and harassed by King's attentions, and a troubled home life left him emotionally unequipped to handle the situation.
On Feb. 12, McInerney shot King in the back of the head with a handgun as first-period classes were beginning, according to police investigators and students who saw the shooting. McInerney's inability to see another way to solve his problem is partly the fault of the school system, his attorney said.
"Brandon is not some crazed lunatic," Quest said. "This was a confluence of tragic events that could have been stopped. If there is partial blame in other places, let's not throw away Brandon for the rest of his life."
School officials dispute Quest's assertions.
McInerney has been held in Juvenile Hall on $700,000 bail since the shooting. Ventura County prosecutors have announced their intent to try him as an adult. The teenager is scheduled to enter a plea at today's proceedings, but Quest said the arraignment may be postponed until the court decides on his motion to try him as a juvenile.
Under state law, juvenile offenders can be incarcerated until the age of 25 and then must be released. If he is convicted as an adult, McInerney would face 50 years to life, with an additional three years for a special hate-crime allegation.
"We think there will be evidence that the school, with the actions of Larry, didn't quite know how to deal with it," Quest said. "There were complaints that Larry's behavior was causing problems, especially with the boys."
School Supt. Jerry Dannenberg strongly disagreed with such allegations. "School officials definitely were aware of what was going on, and they were dealing with it appropriately," Dannenberg said Wednesday. He declined to say what kind of help was offered, and whether it was provided to both students or only to King. As for King's attire, Dannenberg said administrators are legally restricted from telling public school students what they can wear to school. The only exception is for clothing that creates a "substantial disruption" on campus, such as gang colors and other attire that provokes fights, he said.
King was constitutionally entitled to wear makeup, earrings and high-heeled boots under long-established case law, Dannenberg said.
"The education process was not being hindered," he said. "Teachers were able to teach. There were not large-scale fights that anyone was aware of. So therefore he was within his rights."
Dannenberg said the school district would not take a position on whether McInerney should be tried as an adult, calling that a matter for the courts. But Quest said that several teachers and at least 150 students at E.O. Green have signed a petition asking Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten to agree to move the case to the juvenile system.
A coalition of gay- and gender-rights organizations, including many based in California, has also issued a call for McInerney to be tried as a juvenile. McInerney should be held accountable, the coalition said, but in a system that treats juvenile offenders differently from adults -- and with the goal of rehabilitation.
"We've always held the position that youths should not be tried in adult court," said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, one of 27 groups in the coalition.
"Trying Brandon McInerney as an adult does not serve us in terms of bringing justice to the issue. We need our schools to do a better job preventing violence and create safer school climates."
Proposition 21, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2000, gave prosecutors the option of an adult trial for juveniles 14 or older who are charged with murder. Quest says it is unfair and immoral to apply the standard to McInerney, who turned 14 less than three weeks before the shooting.
"You don't just shut the door, lose the keys and incarcerate him for the rest of his life," he said. "He has no juvenile record and was a very respectful, decent young man who did something very tragic."
Tottensaid he was open to further discussion on trying McInerney as an adult.
Prosecutors are looking at all of the evidence and are considering pleas from the community, as well as from McInerney's family and friends, he said.
Either decision will be unpopular with some people, he noted, but if McInerney is convicted in Juvenile Court, he could be released as early as when he turns 21. "We have to consider the gravity of the crime, and this is someone who essentially executed another student on campus," he said.
King's death has drawn widespread attention from gay rights groups and others who see it as evidence that bullying and harassment of homosexual youths on school campuses remains a problem.
A host of laws aims to quell taunts based on sexual and gender orientation, but enforcing them is another matter, said Laub, whose organization represents 660 school-based groups. In April, students at hundreds of schools across the nation took part in a "Day of Silence" to memorialize King's death and their struggle against discrimination, Laub said.
"Larry's death has galvanized students and teachers who want to see what they can do so that what happened to him can never happen again," she said.