On February 12, Brandon McInerney, a 14-year-old at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, walked into his computer lab and shot 15-year-old Lawrence King (pictured above) in the head in front of two dozen classmates. Lawrence was declared brain dead a day later and taken off life support on February 14. Brandon fled the scene and was quickly apprehended by local police; he is being held at a juvenile detention facility in nearby Ventura on $770,000 bail. Prosecutors are charging him as an adult with gun possession and murder as a premeditated hate crime–if convicted, he faces fifty-two years to life in prison.
This was not a gang-related killing nor a school shooting spree. It was an execution. Brandon singled Lawrence out and shot him at point-blank range, allegedly because Lawrence was gay–and, friends say, recently admitted to having a crush on Brandon.
Lawrence, indeed, had come out to his classmates during this school year. In recent weeks, he had begun to dress like a girl, wearing lipstick and jewelry, nail polish and high-heeled boots. His sexual display, classmates explained in interviews with the press, had prompted taunts from some of the boys at school, including Brandon. Lawrence wasn’t shy, though; he stood up for himself in confrontations. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brandon and Lawrence had gotten into a shouting match at lunch the day before he was killed. A student who witnessed the encounter said one of the bullies shouted to Lawrence, “You better watch your back.”
By all accounts, Lawrence was a sweet, confident kid who was just starting to embrace his identity. News reports have zeroed in on some colorful details, revealing the vibrant personality behind an otherwise faceless victim. This was a kid who helped his mother crochet scarves for US troops for the holidays. A budding entomologist, he collected insects and could identify various species of household bugs, and he had planted a passion fruit vine in his backyard so that it would attract butterflies. The metaphors at hand are rich and poignant, and so sad: as soon as he crawled out of his cocoon, he was squashed.
Lawrence didn’t have it easy at school. He wasn’t spared from the bullying that often accompanies those who come out at such a young age. And he didn’t have it easy at home, either. His parents, Greg and Dawn King, have been reticent in the wake of their son’s death, perhaps because they don’t care to explain why they had kicked him out of the house. Lawrence spent his final days at Casa Pacifica, a shelter for abused children, where, according to Tom Gregory at Huffington Post, he found solace and acceptance in a black Newfoundland named Archie.
The shooting, understandably, has shocked the residents of Oxnard, a relatively peaceful, middle-class suburb near Malibu. On Saturday, February 16, nearly 1,000 supporters–classmates from a wide spectrum of social circles, parents, activists and stunned neighbors–came together to pay tribute in a march through town. “The size of the turnout surprised police, school officials and even the two Hueneme High School sophomores who put the event together,” the LA Times reported.
“We were expecting maybe 100 or 200 people,” said Courtney LaForest, 16, as she gazed at a broad “peace circle” formed by march participants at Plaza Park in downtown Oxnard. “This is incredible.”
Courtney said the turnout reflected a community’s anguish over a senseless shooting that has destroyed the lives of two young men. It was also a public plea for tolerance on school campuses for those who are different, she said.
Vigils have been taking place ever since, along with tolerance teach-ins and support sessions for parents of fearful, traumatized children. Meanwhile, the story has galvanized LGBT activists nationwide and has even reached the ears of the top Democratic contenders for President. When Hillary Clinton heard about the incident, her campaign issued this statement:
I was deeply saddened by the recent death of 15-year-old Lawrence King who was killed at his school in Oxnard, CA. No one should face intimidation or violence, particularly at school, because of their sexual orientation or the way they express their gender identity.
We must finally enact a federal hate crimes law to ensure that gay, lesbian and transgender Americans are protected against violent, bias-motivated crimes. We must send a unified message that hate-based crime will not be tolerated.
Barack Obama quickly followed suit:
It was heartbreaking to learn about Lawrence King’s death, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family. King’s senseless death is a tragic example of the corrosive effect that bigotry and fear can have in our society. It’s also an urgent reminder that we need to do more in our schools to foster tolerance and an acceptance of diversity; that we must enact a federal hate crimes law that protects all LGBT Americans; and that we must recommit ourselves to becoming active and engaged parents, citizens and neighbors, so that bias and bigotry cannot take hold in the first place. We all have a responsibility to help this nation live up to its founding promise of equality for all.
Notice how both Clinton and Obama included a call in their statements for a federal hate crimes bill. It’s here that I get tripped up a bit. As I think about this troubling case, a thorny legal question keeps pricking at me: Is this, by legal standards, a hate crime? To ask the question is not to let Brandon off the hook. He faces a serious charge for a serious crime. He has a lot to answer for, and he’ll have his day in court (he will enter his plea on March 21). To ask the question, though, is to ask whether a 14-year-old is capable of committing a hate crime. It’s a crucial question to ask, as the case moves forward and as legislators consider a federal hate crime bill.
For what it’s worth, I strongly suspect that Brandon’s lethal aggression toward Lawrence has more to do with immaturity and access to guns than calculated, categorical hatred for homosexuals. I hope that the court takes his age into consideration when meting out his punishment.