Prosecuting a killer

In August, an Ohio man was found guilty of killing a well-known female impersonator with a samurai sword. Here is a recap of the trial

BY Doug Maag

September 14 2005 11:00 PM ET

Advocate.com’s Doug Maag was on the scene in Columbus, Ohio, to report on the trial of 34-year-old Michael Jennings. He was found guilty of of killing a female impersonator named Gary McMurtry, who used the stage name Brazon. Jennings had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

August 24, 2005Female impersonator murder trial begins in Ohio

More than three years after Michael Jennings confessed to the murder of one of Columbus’s leading female impersonators, his trial began Monday with a detailed description from the only eyewitness to the attack.

“The next thing I remember is waking up with Gary screaming, ‘Help, get him off me,’” said Brian Bass, testifying about the early morning hours of May 17, 2002, when his former roommate, Gary McMurtry—known among Columbus’s gay men and lesbians as “Brazon”—was killed. Bass, 48, told the court he awoke, put on his shorts, and opened his door to be confronted by a masked man dressed in a “ninja type” black outfit in his hallway. He said he grappled with the intruder before the intruder pulled a sword from a sheath strapped to his back.

Bass, who received defensive wounds on his palms from the sword, said he saw McMurtry “lying on the floor, balled up in a fetal position.” McMurtry, 36, had been slashed 13 times, receiving fatal blows through his liver and heart.

A former Miss Gay Columbus, McMurtry was known for his quick wit and love of Dolly Parton, whose songs were played at his funeral. While comedic and sometimes surly, McMurtry is also credited by many with giving time and raising thousands of dollars for local gay and AIDS charities.

Although Jennings admitted killing McMurtry, the former male stripper entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. In May he and his defense attorneys waived his right to a jury trial, opting for a three-judge panel to hear the case.

During opening arguments, Jennings’s defense attorney, Larry Thomas, said his client, who has been forcibly medicated since his arrest, believed he was “on a mission to spread world peace.”

Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien and assistant prosecutor George Ellis spent much of the day calling witnesses who saw an armed, masked figure dressed in black running through their neighborhood just after 7 a.m. on the day of the crime. They presented box-loads of evidence, including a backpack taken from Jennings. The backpack contained throwing darts, a small crossbow, a weighted fighting chain, throwing stars, and several other ninja-related weapons.

During much of the testimony Jennings sat in his chair looking at his hands in his lap. As the day’s presentation of evidence ended with photos of blood-splattered walls and sheets in McMurtry’s bedroom, Jennings was seen burying his face in his hands, apparently yawning.

Friends of both victims sat in court with tear-filled eyes as Bass described the attack on McMurtry, his 911 call, wrapping his bloody hands in towels, and fleeing into the street to flag down passing motorists for help. Jennings’s parents spent much of the day in the hallway to the courtroom.

August 26, 2005Murder trial continues

Presenting the coroner’s autopsy report and the videotaped interrogation of the defendant, the prosecution on Tuesday presented the strongest evidence yet in McMurtry’s slaying. Jennings sat with his head down as he and the three-judge panel hearing his case heard for the first time his version of events.

On the taped interrogation, Jennings answered basic questions, casually bantering with officers, then denied involvement in the attack. “They are actually real good friends of mine, and they helped me out when I hit rock bottom, so to speak,” said the rather emotionless Jennings after being told someone had died at a home he was familiar with. “This is kind of disturbing to hear.”

After he spent 20 minutes telling officers a false story about his whereabouts that morning, Jennings was told that he would be charged with murder. “I don’t have anything against anybody.… I had no fall-outs with him,” Jennings told officers of his relationship with McMurtry.

Just a few minutes later, however, after being left alone in the room, Jennings put his head on the table, appearing to sob, shake his head, and mumble to himself. At one point he looked directly into the camera. Five minutes later he suddenly sat back in his chair and looked up as if talking to God. “It’s all my fault,” he said.

As the tape played, Jennings, who could hear but not see himself on the screen in the courtroom, began to imitate the gestures he made on-screen as he relived his interrogation for the first time since his arrest, according to a defense team aide.

Jennings’s defense attorneys confirmed their client will take the stand on Thursday. Closing arguments are expected on Friday.

Just prior to the introduction of the tape, assistant prosecutor George Ellis read aloud the autopsy report, describing in detail each of the 13 wounds McMurtry received from one sword and one handheld knife, including the fatal blows to the heart and liver. As he recounted the 10th wound, Judge Beverly Pfeiffer seemed to lose her composure slightly, looking first down at her desk and then up at the ceiling.

Prosecutors introduced testimony from a few other crime scene investigators, most of whom were not cross-examined by the defense. The defense team is expected to begin presenting its case on Wednesday.

August 27–29, 2005Killer found guilty

Jennings was found guilty on Thursday of killing McMurtry.

“When I heard, I sat on the floor over there and cried,” said Matt Richison, who performs as Missy Marlo. “[Jennings] is a cold-blooded killer, and he tried to get out of it.”

During the trial Jennings took the stand and told the courtroom that he believed McMurtry and his roommate had murdered two people whom he had known and that he believed that he was next. “I still believe it was my right to protect myself,” said Jennings. “How many people does someone have to kill before someone else takes action?”

Psychologists testified that Jennings believed he was the archangel Michael, a biblical reference to the angel who defeated Satan’s minions and cast them into hell. Jennings also compared himself to Joan of Arc, who claimed to have received messages from Michael to help lead the French to victory against the English in 1429.

Jennings told one doctor he was on a mission to spread world peace by joining the Columbus Crew professional soccer team. Once on the team the Crew would win the World Cup, and he would be interviewed on television, where he could finally deliver his message of world peace. The Columbus Crew eventually filed a restraining order against Jennings.

In closing arguments, defense attorney J. Tullis Rogers gave an impassioned speech on behalf of his client, implying that the decision to declare Jennings competent to stand trial may have been incorrect. He said his client believed he was morally correct in his decision to kill and was not an evil person. “There are people who think it’s not moral and it’s illegal to be gay,” said Tullis. “I am simply asking the court to keep an open mind.”

During his testimony, Jennings denied that the attack had anything to do with McMurtry’s sexual orientation.

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