"Do you remember that morning?"
That question by Ventura County prosecutor Maeve Fox was all it took to send a former Oxnard junior high student into a tailspin. On the witness stand Wednesday, the 17-year-old identified only as Mariah T. dropped her head and began sobbing, her long red hair spilling over her face as she turned away from the defendant, her former 8th-grade classmate Brandon McInerney, seated across the courtroom.
Mariah T. was so overcome that she could no longer speak, and Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles Campbell called a short recess.
Fox reached into the core of the case on the second day of McInerney's murder trial, querying six students about strained relations between McInerney and 15-year-old Larry King in the days before the February 2008 shooting that left King dead from two shots to the back of his head.
Defense lawyers don't dispute that McInerney pulled the trigger. But they are hoping to convince jurors that McInerney, then 14, is guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder because he snapped after repeated sexual advances by King.
Fox put a series of students on the witness stand, all of whom attended E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard at the time of the killing. Each told much the same story: Nobody paid much attention to King until he began adding feminine shoes and accessories to his school uniform in late January 2008.
King was something of a loner whose only friends were a group of African American girls. Halfway through eighth grade, he underwent a change, not only wearing high-heeled shoes and applying makeup but challenging anyone who made fun of him, several students testified.
He was taunted whenever he dressed up but wasn't aggressive with others unless he felt they were staring or making fun of him. Mariah T. was friends with King, whom she described as nice unless someone was getting in his face.
"He liked my hair, and he would always talk to me about cheer," she recalled. But other kids laughed and called him names, she said. "Gay. Fag. Right to his face," she said. "He didn't care. But he would react…. People laughed and called him names and talked about him," she said.
King's female friends would "egg him on" to react, and then he would do it more, she recalled.
Jesus C. said he saw King demand to know what students were staring at as they passed him in the corridors, tottering on high heels. "That's kinda something to stare at, right? He changed so people were staring," Jesus C. testified.
None of the students could remember King's behavior or dress causing a disruption in the classroom. But tensions were brewing between him and McInerney, several students told the court. McInerney, popular and athletic, was "one of the best kids" in math, as one boy testified, and a jock who mainly hung out with a group of black athletes, testified another.
On the day before the shooting, McInerney spoke to a group of boys about rushing King or "shanking" him after school, according to testimony by Cristian G., who was in the same P.E. class. McInerney was upset by a comment King had made to him earlier in the day, he said.
Four students who testified were in the computer lab the morning McInerney shot King. While some details varied, they essentially told the same story.
McInerney was sitting directly behind King, who had come to school that day with no embellishments. A girl sitting close to King asked him if he was changing his name because she noticed that he had written "Leticia" at the top of his research paper. King responded, "Yeah," and Jesus C. and another boy started giggling.
King told them to "f-off," according to Jesus C. Mariah T. had perhaps the best vantage point on precisely what happened next because she could clearly see both King and McInerney from where she was sitting.
It was those images that appeared to haunt the teenager on Wednesday. After the recess, she returned to the stand with her mother, who held her hand as Mariah T. choked out her story under gentle questioning by Fox. In a soft voice, Mariah T. said she heard the first gunshot and looked up to see a seated McInerney holding a small black gun.
The teacher, Dawn Boldrin, shouted, "What the hell are you doing!" This was followed seconds later by a second shot delivered by McInerney, Mariah T. testified. McInerney then looked around the classroom, briefly making eye contact with Mariah T., before leaving the computer lab, the girl testified.
As she spoke, Mariah T. turned her head in the opposite direction of McInerney. After defense attorney Scott Wippert declined to cross-examine, she stood and shielded herself from McInerney's view as she exited the courtroom.