By THOMAS WATKINS
LOS ANGELES – The trial of a California teenager accused of fatally shooting a gay classmate at school is drawing to a close, with the defense trying to chip away at the prosecution’s argument that the killing was a hate crime fueled by homophobia and white supremacist sympathies.
The case has brought national attention to the issue of violence against gays. Lawyers for Brandon McInerney are seeking to undermine the credibility of a detective who said he found a trove of Nazi paraphernalia and other emblems of racist ideology at the home and in the schoolbooks of McInerney.
The lanky teen, now 17, is accused of taking a .22-caliber revolver to a Ventura County junior high classroom on Feb. 12, 2008, a few weeks after his 14th birthday, and shooting Larry King, a gay classmate who wore high heels and told McInerney he loved him.
There’s no dispute at the trial that McInerney pulled the trigger. Instead, the case is revolving around what prompted him to do so.
Defense attorneys want to persuade jurors that McInerney was not filled with hate-based bias against Larry. They say he was the victim of a violent upbringing who was unable to articulate his rage and frustration at unwanted sexual advances from Larry.
The defense was expected to rest Friday, with closing arguments likely next week.
McInerney’s lead attorney, Scott Wippert, on Thursday conducted grueling cross-examination of Simi Valley police Detective Dan Swanson, an expert on racist groups who helped with the homicide investigation and testified that McInerney was driven by white supremacist ideology.
The detective said he formed that opinion after finding swastikas and other Nazi images in McInerney’s books.
“This could very well be the justification for going about doing the actual crime,” Swanson said.
He also said McInerney was associated with a racist gang and knew prominent white supremacists in Ventura County, including one whose house he had slept at two nights before the killing.
Wippert countered by saying the main reason McInerney had Nazi imagery was because he was writing about Hitler as part of a class on tolerance.
Other items, such as books about Nazi youth and an Iron Cross medal found in the defendant’s bedroom, belonged to his half-brother, a Marine who was interested in World War II history, according to previous testimony.
Defense lawyers hope to persuade the jury to convict McInerney of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, which with the hate-crime enhancement could carry a sentence of at least 51 years in prison.
A voluntary manslaughter conviction has a 21-year maximum penalty. McInerney is being tried as an adult.
The victim’s father, Greg King, said outside court that he was confident jurors would not accept the defense arguments.
“He took the gun to school,” the father said. “I don’t understand how you can possibly say this was not premeditated.”
Arthur Saenz, a teacher from E.O. Green School in Oxnard, has testified that Larry paraded around in makeup and high heels in front of McInerney the day before the shooting.
McInerney was sitting on a bench looking angry and upset while King walked back and forth in front of him as other students laughed, Saenz said.
He said he did nothing to diffuse the situation because the school administrator walked up and saw the same scene, but he later thought the encounter “appeared to be sexual harassment.”
The school’s principal has come under fire for allegedly being more concerned about defending Larry’s civil rights than recognizing that his behavior was making other students uncomfortable. Larry’s clothes had violated school dress code.
The case is being heard in Los Angeles because authorities decided intense media coverage in Ventura County could have affected the jury pool.