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Judge: Larry
King’s Accused Killer Should Be Tried as Adult

Judge: Larry
King’s Accused Killer Should Be Tried as Adult

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A California judge ruled Thursday that 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, the accused slayer of 15-year-old gay classmate Lawrence King, will be tried as an adult. Ventura County superior court judge Douglas Daily denied a defense motion that sought to transfer the case to juvenile court on constitutional grounds.

A California judge ruled Thursday that 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, the accused slayer of 15-year-old gay classmate Lawrence King, will be tried as an adult. Ventura County superior court judge Douglas Daily denied a defense motion that sought to transfer the case to juvenile court on constitutional grounds. McInerney's arraignment, also scheduled for Thursday, was postponed until August 8 to permit his attorney, senior deputy public defender William Quest, to petition the appellate court for immediate review of Daily's ruling.

According to witnesses, McInerney shot King in the head on February 12 during first period in a packed classroom at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, a largely blue-collar port city of 200,000 about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. McInerney was charged as an adult with premeditated murder with a special hate-crime allegation under Proposition 21, a controversial 2000 law enacted by ballot initiative that affords district attorneys more or less unfettered discretion to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults for certain felonies.

As Quest explained in a courtroom interview with The Advocate in June, the motion to try McInerney as a juvenile rested on the argument that charging "Brandon as an adult to result in a 51-[years]-to-life sentence [would be] cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Quest acknowledged at the time that previous challenges to Prop 21 had failed but said none had been based on Eighth Amendment grounds.

In a telephone interview with The Advocate before the hearing, Quest said, "I think we have merit to our argument, and I think we have a legitimate basis for our argument, but it's going to take a strong court to go against the D.A."

At Thursday's hearing, Quest contended that if McInerney were convicted, the judge would be required to impose the 51-years-to-life sentence, and would not be permitted to take into account specific mitigating circumstances, such as "what was going on in [McInerney's] life" or the victim's conduct. "You are in effect neutered by the law," Quest told the judge. Quest argued that while this might be permissible with adult defendants, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment when applied to a juvenile.

Prior to the hearing, senior deputy district attorney Maeve Fox, who is prosecuting the case, told The Advocate that Quest's chances of winning his motion were "slim to none," adding the issues it raised "have all been ironed out" in previous cases.

In court, Fox said, "the law doesn't allow murder at any age." She contended that it would be inappropriate for the court to make any decision based on McInerney's alleged "special circumstances" before any evidence about those circumstances, or about anything else, had even been taken in the case. Daily agreed and denied the motion, expressly holding Prop 21 constitutional.

The district attorney's decision to charge McInerney as an adult has been controversial. "We've had boatloads of letters and e-mails on both sides" of the issue, Fox said. In a widely reported April letter to district attorney Greg Totten, more than 20 LGBT groups, including Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "call[ed] on prosecutors not to compound this tragedy with another wrong" and to "treat the suspect as a juvenile, and not as an adult."

Fox, however, adamantly defends the decision. "Do you want [McInerney] living next door to you at 21?" she asked rhetorically in the Tuesday interview. "When you were 14, when you were 10, when you were 8," she continued, "did you know it was wrong to kill someone? The answer inevitably is yes. And I understand that he's 14, but for someone, at that age, to premeditate and deliberate this kind of crime and pull it off in front of their entire class I think is cause for serious alarm. And I understand that people are compassionate towards him, and I am compassionate towards him, and I don't necessarily think he should spend the entirety of his life behind bars, but he should spend a good long time behind bars."

Fox pointed out in a previous interview that "14- and 15-year-olds cannot receive life without the possibility of parole in California," which means that McInerney could be freed at some point even if convicted and given the maximum sentence.

Quest sees the issue differently. "If you ask a 10-year-old, 'Is it wrong to steal?' typically they'll say yes," he said. "But...let's say they're at a store and they may have these urges [and] they don't think it through, they don't have the ability to go through a cost-benefit analysis that you do as you get older. And so it's kind of like hot and cold cognition, and there's a lot of research on that. If you ask them while they're eating breakfast in a very calm situation, right or wrong, generally kids can say that. Obviously, is murder wrong? Yes. But in a hot situation . . . the emotional and physical capacity to think things [through] clearly is limited when you're an adolescent. Therefore you have diminished culpability."

Asked how McInerney's having allegedly premeditated King's murder by bringing a gun from home to school squared with notions of "hot and cold cognition," Quest responded, "Obviously I'm going to have to defend this case if we go in adult court. And how I do that, I don't want to get into it.... It's going to be a difficult case within the laws that govern adults."

On another front in the case, a hearing has been scheduled for August 11 on Quest's bid to obtain King's records from the school and from Casa Pacifica, a residential facility for troubled children where King was living at the time of the murder. (Peter DelVecchio, The Advocate)

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