On Aug. 26th, the case went to the jury and the waiting began. That’s what you do in a civilized country. You take the crime to court and look for justice.
It is a lofty word, isn’t it? Suggests a balancing of scales, a putting right of wrongs, the righteous retribution of outraged society. Justice.
Three years ago, a 14-year-old boy named Brandon McInerney walked into a classroom at E.O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, 60-odd miles north of L.A. He sat behind 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King, pulled out a .22 caliber revolver and shot King in the head. The teacher screamed. King slumped. McInerney, according to testimony, made eye contact with a classmate. Then he shot Larry King again.
Police found him a few blocks away, talking on his cell phone. “I’m sorry, I did it officer,” he reportedly said.
Larry King, who lived in a children’s shelter, stood not quite five feet tall. He identified as gay and wore high heels and other feminine accouterments. This made him a target for bullies, McInerney among them, according to witnesses.
But King gave as good as he got. He flirted with his tormenters, playing on the sexual insecurity that is common in straight men and more so in straight boys. McInerney was humiliated and outraged. The day before the shooting, King is said to have taunted him saying, “Baby, I love you.”
McInerney told anyone who would listen that he was going to kill King. “Tell Larry goodbye because you’re not going to see him again,” one of King’s friends testified he said.
McInerney lived in a bedroom in his father’s house containing Nazi memorabilia, Hitler speeches and swastika drawings. His parents divorced after a violent, tumultuous marriage. His mother was once arrested for drugs. The father was an alcoholic presiding over a home so dysfunctional that, according to one report, he forbade his son to cry after punching him in the face.
Prosecutors chose to try this troubled boy as an adult for first-degree murder and a hate crime. It was a grotesque decision. You do not send a boy away for 50 years for a thing he did, no matter how heinous, before he was old enough to shave.
His attorneys defended McInerney by painting King as a sexual predator and claiming their client panicked and snapped from the horror of being flirted with by a gay boy. It was a despicable strategy. Would anyone ask sympathy for an anti-Semite who panicked and snapped because a Jew said, “Baby, I love you”?
On Thursday, the case ended in a mistrial. Jurors were unable to decide between murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. But the detritus of this tragedy is beyond the power of any verdict to ever repair. Brandon McInerney will always be a ruined boy. School officials will always be wondering what they could have done to prevent this awful thing. Larry King will always be dead.
And the rest of us will go back to grappling with the challenge that never ends: how to build a culture where it’s OK to be different, where standing out from the crowd is not an invitation to hatred and violence. This collision between junior high school boys brings into sharp focus our failure to do that. So instead, we do this: go to court and look for justice. There is something quixotic about that.
You see, there can be no justice here. It is far too late for that.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.