A Murder Over a Girl by Ken Corbett is a psychologist's gripping, troubling, and moving exploration of the brutal murder of a possibly transgender middle school student by an eighth grade classmate (Available March 1, 2016).
On Feb. 12, 2008, at E. O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, CA, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney shot and killed his classmate, Larry King, who had recently begun to call himself “Leticia” and wear makeup and jewelry to school.
Profoundly shaken by the news, and unsettled by media coverage that sidestepped the issues of gender identity and of race integral to the case, psychologist Ken Corbett traveled to LA to attend the trial. As visions of victim and perpetrator were woven and unwoven in the theater of the courtroom, a haunting picture emerged not only of the two young teenagers, but also of spectators altered by an atrocity and of a community that had unwittingly gestated a murder. Drawing on firsthand observations, extensive interviews and research, as well as on his decades of academic work on gender and sexuality, Corbett holds each murky facet of this case up to the light, exploring the fault lines of memory and the lacunae of uncertainty behind facts.
Have you tried not to think about this at all until today?
Is this really hard for you?
Did you see Brandon when he came into the courtroom this morning?
You saw the same person that you saw shoot Larry King?
Yes? Where is he sitting?—I know—I’m not going to ask you to look at him. But can you tell me where he is sitting?
Deep breath. Where?
Mariah Thompson had come to testify in The People of the State of California v. Brandon David McInerney. Three years earlier, on February 12, 2008, fourteen-year-old Brandon shot fifteen-year-old Lawrence “Larry” Fobes King twice in the back of the head, during their first-period English class at E. O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, California.
On this, the second day of the trial, July 6, 2011, Brandon stood accused of first-degree murder, lying in wait, and a hate crime. The hate was said to be gender hate. Larry King had begun referring to himself as a girl a few days before he was killed, and it was alleged by the Ventura County district attorney that Brandon killed Larry “because of his perceived gender or sexual orientation.”
The bailiff, Los Angeles district deputy sheriff Mike Anton, met Mariah at the main door to Courtroom F51 of the Superior Court of the State of California, Los Angeles County, Chatsworth, California. Room F51 was a windowless, though brightly lit, sage-green box. It had been built for wear: plastic wood veneers, poorly padded folding seats, concrete floors. Even the sparse carpeting was made to endure, not bounce.
Mariah had been a classmate of Larry King and Brandon McInerney, and an eyewitness to the shooting. Sheriff Anton offered his hand to guide her to the witness stand. She did not look up as she walked past the visitors’ gallery toward the well of the court. Sheriff Anton opened a small gate in the waist-high wall that divided the gallery from the well, and gently directed Mariah between the tables used by the prosecution and the defense teams.
Wearing a white cotton sundress and black ballet flats, she recoiled, even as she advanced, walking with her head bent forward, her shoulders rounded into her round frame. She made no eye contact. She stopped a few feet before the judge’s bench. She tugged at the edge of her salmon-colored cardigan sweater.
The judge, the Honorable Charles W. Campbell, sat at his imposing bench, above Mariah. The clerk of the court, the record keeper, and her assistant sat at a long desk, perpendicular to the judge’s bench, on the right. The court reporter sat just below the judge, not far from where Mariah stood. The jury was seated on a three-row riser, to Mariah’s left.
Sheriff Anton instructed Mariah to raise her right hand and face the clerk. Mariah did not turn, nor did she look toward the clerk. She did, though, raise her hand barely above her hip.
Holding a Bible, Madame Clerk asked, “Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give in the case now pending before this court is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Mariah nodded and was sworn in.
With Sheriff Anton’s help, she made her way up a single step to the witness stand, a small perch sandwiched between the judge’s bench and the jury box.
Mariah sat hunched on the edge of the brown upholstered chair, the sort one might see in an office cubicle. Sheriff Anton, the unerring butler of the courtroom, ran his hand over the rail, as if to demonstrate that Mariah was protected. She stated her first name and spelled it. She looked, for the first time, out at the room.
* * *
FIFTY-SEVEN PEOPLE HAD GATHERED. THE judge, businesslike and patrician, could have just as easily been sitting at the head of a conference table in a corporate boardroom, his wavy silver hair carefully combed. Joining him at the front of the room were the patient women who ran the proceedings: the clerk, her assistant, and the court reporter.
There were twelve jurors. Nine women, three men. Eight wore wedding rings. Nine were white. Three were brown. During jury selection, three had indicated that they were retired; they were formerly a businessman, a career military man, and a social worker. Seven, all of them women, had reported that they were of middle age: three housewives, two nurses, one teacher, one office worker. Two of the jurors were younger: a female college student and a young man who worked in his family’s business. Two were fathers. Seven were mothers.
The prosecution and the defense teams also sat in the well. Leading the prosecution was Deputy District Attorney Maeve Fox, a petite woman who wore the kind of suits women wear to formal lunches in fashion magazines. She was focused on her notes and did not look up as she stacked folders and arranged three-ring binders. Her habit of order comically collided with the disorganization of her investigator, Robert Coughlin, who sat next to Ms. Fox and seemed to be looking for something that had gone missing.
Heading up the defense was Scott Wippert, whose belt was as tight as he could cinch it, yet he still had to hitch up his pants. (I would later learn that he had lost ten pounds as he prepared for the trial.) Mr. Wippert was leafing through a yellow legal pad, making notes. Like Ms. Fox, he did not look up.
Robyn Bramson, the defense co-counsel, a freshman litigator, looked around the room. She squinted and squirmed. Kathryn Lestelle, the defense investigator, sat at the edge of the table, struggling to gather the tangled nests that were her hair and her notes.
Just before Mariah entered the room, Brandon had been escorted from a door on the right-hand side of the courtroom, a doorway that led to the holding cell in which he had been waiting. Two deputy sheriffs, broad men in khaki uniforms, had walked alongside him as he took his seat. Brandon was wearing civilian clothing: gray slacks, a light blue oxford-cloth shirt, and square-toed black shoes. He did not look toward the visitors’ gallery. It was difficult at first to see his face, although it was not hard to see that he was taller than the sheriffs who accompanied him. Brandon now sat between Mr. Wippert and Ms. Bramson.
In the gallery, the press sat in a row of four single-file seats. Each chair was full: two local print journalists (Zeke Barlow from the Ventura County Star and Catherine Saillant from the Los Angeles Times) and two local television reporters (Christina Gonzales, FOX LA; and Amy Johnson, KCBS/KCAL).
The main visitors’ gallery comprised five rows of eight seats each. Three retired attorneys, with three bald spots, sat in the front row. Four members of the McInerney family sat in the second row, behind the defense team: Kendra McInerney, Brandon’s mother, tall like her son, wore a black-and-white sundress, with sandals. Her long blonde hair was streaked with gray and looked perpetually wet, as if she had just come from the beach. Seated to her right was her friend Nancy who dressed in men’s work clothes and wore her black hair in a tight braid. She could have been the handsome Indian in a Hollywood movie from the 1940s, save for the fact that she had PAYASO GUETO (ghetto clown) tattooed on her neck. Shannon Mulhardt, Brandon’s aunt, his father’s sister, also sat close to Kendra. A family friend sat next to Ms. Mulhardt. Both of them looked like the settled suburban sisters of the less domesticated Kendra and Nancy.
The King family sat in the third row: Greg King, Larry’s adoptive father, sat in the aisle seat, a red-faced man who looked over his glasses toward the well of the court. Whenever there was a break in the proceedings, he was the first out of his seat, reaching for his cigarettes as he hit the door. Dawn King, Larry’s adoptive mother, struggled to settle in her seat, fiddling with her handbag and adjusting her necklaces. Dawn sat next to her mother, Sharon Townsend, Larry’s adoptive maternal grandmother, a trim, unadorned contrast to her daughter. Larry’s biological brother, Rocky, a long-limbed thirteen-year-old, sat still next to his grandmother. And next to Rocky sat Larry’s adoptive uncle, Greg’s brother. I never heard him speak, and I never learned his name.
The fourth and fifth rows were unofficially reserved for various family members and friends who had accompanied witnesses to the court. Witnesses were required to wait in the outer hallway until they were called into the courtroom. Today, the second day of the trial, Mariah’s father and stepmother were in the fourth row, along with three other mothers who had come with their children, all of whom had been eyewitnesses to the shooting and would testify later that day. The back row included five more family members who had come to support their kin.
I sat in the second row of the visitors’ gallery, two seats to the left of Kendra McInerney. I was one of three people who were there to observe the proceedings, for various projects on which we were working. I am a psychologist and had come to observe the trial as part of my research for writing this book. Sitting to my left was my friend Gayle Salamon, a professor at Princeton University, who was researching a book about how gender and sexuality were emobied at E. O. Green and in the courtroom. Marta Cunningham, a documentarian who was collecting data and interviews for her film Valentine Road, sat behind us, in the third row.
Sheriff Anton and his two deputies were stationed at a small desk near the jury. Two other deputies were stationed in the back of the courtroom, near the main entry.
* * *
AS MARIAH LOOKED OUT UPON the room, I doubt that she took in all the different people, for as quickly as she looked up, she lowered her head again, and began to weep. Fear illuminated Mariah’s pale skin and blue eyes.
Deputy DA Fox, leading the prosecution, instructed Mariah to breathe. Ms. Fox offered to delay the questioning. She asked if Mariah might like to have one of her parents join her on the stand. Judge Campbell reiterated those offers. Mariah caught her breath, and said that she could go on.
Led by Ms. Fox’s questions, Mariah described Larry King as a “skinny-ish” brown boy who was “out there” but “seemed happy.” She smiled warmly when she said this. It was as if the smile had escaped. Then she explained that a month before Larry was killed, he had begun “dressing up.” He wore high heels, makeup, and earrings to school. By Mariah’s account, Larry was often teased and called names like “gay” and “fag.” Yes, Larry would react to the teasing, sometimes taunting in return, but Mariah thought such rejoinders were always provoked.
Ms. Fox shifted her questions, and her focus, to the accused murderer. Mariah told us that she shared two classes, PE and English, with the defendant, Brandon McInerney. Mariah recounted how she had observed Brandon, along with her other classmates, teasing Larry. Careful to include Brandon in a group, Mariah did not name Brandon as a lone bully. She did not even have a clear recollection of seeing Larry and Brandon interact, one-to-one.
Mariah glanced at Brandon. Just as quickly, she returned her gaze to her hands, worrying a tissue in her lap. She smiled. Again, the smile quivered, and was quickly checked. Ms. Fox asked if kids said things to Larry like “You’re so gay. Why do you dress like a girl?” Mariah quietly said, “Yes.” She dared another glance at Brandon.
Moving quickly, as we would learn was her style, Ms. Fox turned to the day of the murder, February 12, 2008, and the classroom at E. O. Green Junior High School, where the murder took place. Using an aerial diagram of the school, Ms. Fox asked Mariah to identify the classroom and to confirm where she had been sitting on the morning in question. Mariah hesitated, and Ms. Fox repeated the question. As Mariah pointed at the diagram, she began to cry.
Sheriff Anton offered tissues and water. Mariah took the tissues, leaving the water bottle unopened on the edge of the witness stand. Calmed, she went ahead to describe how twenty-eight students had started off the school day together in their homeroom, where they stayed for about fifteen minutes before walking together to the computer lab to work on research papers. Mariah’s paper was about Anne Frank.
Twenty minutes after the class had settled into the computer lab, Mariah turned away from her computer to ask a friend a question.
“What did you see? What happened?” Ms. Fox asked.
Mariah looked sidelong at Brandon, then back at Ms. Fox, who repeated the question. Mariah lowered her head. Her shoulder-length red-blonde hair fell forward. She attempted to push it back, but strands of hair caught in the corners of her mouth.
Mariah was by then seventeen years old. It was not difficult, though, to see her at fourteen, her age when she watched fourteen-year-old Brandon become a murderer and fifteen-year-old Larry leave life. Flush with emotion, caught in the magnifying lens of the witness stand, Mariah began to tremble. Terror emerged from her eyes and unfurled across her body.
She was not alone. When Mariah entered the room, she brought murder with her. It was with us all. One juror, a trim, elderly man, leaned forward and put his head in his hands. Two jurors wept.
To my right, Brandon’s mother, Kendra, sobbed. She held a tissue to her nose, but it had given way, and her hands were wet. She struggled to breathe. As her gasps accelerated, I began to think through the medical response to a panic attack. (We might need a small brown paper bag for her.) Someone in the visitors’ gallery said, “No!” not loudly enough to fill the room, but loudly enough to breach the court’s instructed silence. The court reporter bowed her head. Larry’s grandmother, Dawn King’s mother, Sharon Townsend, put her hand on her forehead and then reached out to touch the shoulder of Larry’s younger brother, Rocky.
Ms. Fox offered Mariah a break. She asked if Mariah might wish to move her chair so that her back would be turned to Brandon. Mariah did not respond.
Judge Campbell ordered a twenty-minute recess. Time would be reset. His order was kind but firm. He was not going to be insensitive to emotion. There would, however, be a limit to its interference and to his willingness to indulge it. Judge Campbell explained that when the proceedings reconvened, one of Mariah’s parents would join her on the stand. The judge excused her, and Sheriff Anton helped her exit the witness stand and walk to her parents, who met her at the gate that separated the well from the visitors’ gallery. Looking frightened, Mariah’s father put his arm around her and led her from the room.
Brandon had remained motionless throughout Mariah’s testimony, head down, shoulders loose. He’d stared at the edge of the table and at the water bottle he occasionally tipped on its side. After the recess was called, he rose from his chair with his defense team. He turned to face the visitors’ gallery as the jurors filed out. He stood with his hands folded, as if he were in a receiving line. The pose looked coached. So, too, had Brandon’s long brown hair been coached and combed in the manner of an Eton schoolboy. His social performance was as new and stiff as his shoes. The following week, Samantha Criner, Brandon’s girlfriend, would testify that she had never seen him with long hair. “Gosh! He’s never looked like that,” she exclaimed. “I always wanted to see him with long hair, but he never would, you know. Buzzed, it was always buzzed.”
Brandon was “a handsome boy.” Most everyone said so. He was pale, prison porcelain, with gray eyes shadowed by a strong brow. His small chin, his thin mouth (it could have been drawn with two quick pencil strokes) were just the right element of flaw. At six foot three, he towered over his lawyers. His muscles pushed against the seams of his extra large shirt that sought to cover the evidence.
Two deputies escorted Brandon from the courtroom to his holding cell.
I walked to the bathroom. I went to the sink and began splashing my face with cold water. I put my glasses back on and looked in the mirror, taking in my short gray hair and the bags under my eyes. A thin man, I am often taken to be younger than I am. But as I looked at my reflection, I did not see much that spoke of youth. I thought about my father’s father, who was fifty-seven years old when I was born. In my eyes, he had always been old. I myself was fifty-seven as I stood in front of the mirror. I was ten when my grandfather died. His death was my first. I had had to be ushered from the funeral, in tears.
As I stood at the sink, Zeke Barlow, the reporter from the Ventura County Star, came in, used the urinal, washed his hands, and began to pace. Zeke, whom I had met the day before, looked at me and asked, “Dude, you all right?”
“Barely,” I said.
An elderly gentleman, unknown to me, walked to the urinal. And, as if he were speaking to himself or rhetorically to the room, the stranger said, “How could he?”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 Ken Corbett.
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Ken Corbett is Clinical Assistant Professor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He maintains a private practice in New York City and consults internationally. His writings and interviews about gender, sexuality, art, and psychotherapy appear in academic journals as well as in magazines, newspapers, websites, and on television. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities.