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A trial is under way in Southern California for a teen accused of killing a gay classmate. The murder of 15-year old Lawrence King has brought national attention to the problem of gay bullying. Prosecutors say the defendant was driven to murder by his hatred of homosexuals. Defense attorneys say their client snapped after being repeatedly harassed by the openly gay teen.
NPR's Carrie Kahn has more.
CARRIE KAHN: The murder took place three years ago in the working class town of Oxnard, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney walked into first period computer lab, sat behind classmate Larry King and pulled a gun out of his backpack.
According to prosecutors, he shot King once in the back of the head, looked around the class, made eye contact with several students, then shot King again. Those two shots resonated far beyond the walls of E.O. Green Junior High in Oxnard.
Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES (Comedian/Talk Show Host): I need to talk to you about something that's really serious and really sad.
KAHN: Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, as well as gay rights advocates around the country, took to the airwaves. They started Facebook tributes and held annual vigils. They said gay teens were facing an epidemic of bullying in schools.
Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES: Larry was not a second-class citizen; I am not a second-class citizen. It is okay if you're gay.
(Soundbite of applause)
KAHN: The trial has been moved into Los Angeles County because of pretrial publicity. A much taller and older-looking now-17-year-old Brandon McInerney spends his days emotionless in the courtroom.
Prosecutor Maeve Fox told jurors he is a cold-blooded murderer.
Ms. MAEVE FOX (Prosecutor): The evidence in this case will prove to you that this killing was an execution.
KAHN: Fox said that McInerney killed King out of his hatred for homosexuals, something he learned as an avid follower of white supremacist, Nazi teachings. McInerney is also charged with a hate crime. If convicted of premeditated murder, he faces life in prison.
Then, surprisingly, Fox also told jurors that there will not be any evidence in the trial about the victim's sexuality. Fox said that question will never be answered. Prosecutors declined to comment for this story.
Ms. LAURIE LEVENSON (Former Federal Prosecutor): I think the prosecutor is trying really hard not to put the victim on trial.
KAHN: Laurie Levenson is a former federal prosecutor.
Ms. LEVENSON: It doesn't really matter what the victim's actual sexual orientation was. What matters is what the defendant thought it was and whether the defendant killed him because he was against gays.
KAHN: Levenson says the prosecution may also not want to open the door into King's sexuality, in case there are jurors who don't approve of gays and lesbians.
But clearly, King's sexuality is the central focus of the defense's case. Attorney Scott Wippert told jurors that King was openly gay, wore makeup and girls clothing to school and constantly harassed his client.
Mr. SCOTT WIPPERT (Attorney): He targeted Brandon McInerney. He knew that what he was doing to Brandon was bothering him, and he knew it, and he was doing it over and over again. He was making unwanted sexual advances to a 14-year-old boy.
KAHN: Wippert says King pushed McInerney to the breaking point. If found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, McInerney could be eligible for parole before he's 40.
Neither side in the trial is disputing that McInerney killed King, but what is undecided is the motive. The defense insists that McInerney is not a racist and that Nazi material he possessed was for an eighth grade project on World War II.
Several classmates, including African-American students, have testified that McInerney never said anything racist. The trial is expected to last through July.
Jay Thomas, who heads the Rainbow Alliance, a local advocacy center, says everyone is anxious to put this case behind them. But he says the issue of bullying and gay teens is still not being adequately addressed in the local schools.
Mr. JAY THOMAS (Rainbow Alliance): I think that there's a desire within the school system, within certain teachers and educators to learn more and do more. But I do think that the schools here are still uncomfortable and still don't know exactly what to do.
KAHN: Unfortunately, he says, his group will not be able to help anymore. The Alliance's state funding was cut and will close its doors at the end of the month.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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