A California teen pleaded guilty on Monday to second-degree murder for shooting to death a 15-year-old gay classmate at his middle school who he said made unwanted sexual advances.
The plea by Brandon McInerney, under an agreement with Ventura County prosecutors, brings to a close an emotionally charged case that previously resulted in a hung jury on a charge of murder with a hate crime enhancement.
McInerney, who was 14 at the time of the shooting in 2008, will be sentenced to 21 years in prison without time off for good behavior when he appears before a judge in December, prosecutors said.
The case drew wide attention because of its shocking premise: McInerney, in a fit of homophobic rage, killed classmate Larry King because he was offended by King's dress and how the victim interacted with him.
Prosecutors said McInerney, now 17, took a gun to E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard and sat in a computer lab with King before shooting him in the back of the head and then firing at him as he lay on the ground.
King died two days later after he was removed from life support at a local hospital.
Prosecutors initially charged McInerney as an adult and accused him of murder with hate crime and gun use enhancements, in a case that was moved to suburban Los Angeles over concerns he might not get a fair trial in Ventura County where the shooting occurred.
King, 15, was openly gay, and McInerney's attorneys argued he made sexual advances against their client.
Ventura County prosecutors said McInerney targeted King because of his sexuality and they stressed that King, far from being the aggressor, was being bullied and was 30 pounds lighter than McInerney.
Prosecutors also contended McInerney embraced a white supremacist philosophy that sees homosexuality as an abomination. Police found Nazi-inspired drawings and artifacts at his house, and a white supremacist expert testified at trial the hate-filled ideology was the reason for the killing.
After nine weeks of trial, the jury failed to agree on a verdict against McInerney, with seven voting for manslaughter and five for murder, the Ventura County District Attorney's Office said.
There was no dispute during the trial that McInerney fired the fatal shots. The judge in that trial declared a mistrial in September due to the hung jury.
'I understand the reality'
Larry King's father, Greg King, told KABC-TV he understands why prosecutors agreed to the plea deal.
"I don't think that 21-year sentence is justice for my son, but I understand the reality that was facing the DA of trying to convict a defendant who was 14 ... when he committed the murder," Greg King said.
Comic Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian, weighed in on her talk show shortly after the shooting and said gays shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens.
Several jurors said after the teen's trial earlier this year that he should never have been tried as an adult.
The murder conviction will be stayed, and the plea deal calls for McInerney to be given the harshest sentence under California law for voluntary manslaughter — 11 years — and use of a firearm — 10 years, Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Frawley said. McInerney is ineligible for time served or good behavior because he pleaded guilty to murder.
After serving nearly four years since King's slaying, McInerney will be released just shy of his 39th birthday. Prosecutors had previously offered a plea deal that would have sent McInerney to prison for 25 years to life, but his attorneys passed.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said in a statement the plea agreement ends a tragic chapter.
"Ventura County along with communities and school districts everywhere must come together to promote a culture of respect and nurture the true potential found in every individual regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression," Byard said.
Violent upbringing The victim's mother, Dawn King, revealed Monday that she had contacted school officials four days before the shooting, seeking their cooperation in toning down her son's behavior, the Los Angeles Times reported.
She said she was told that her son had a civil right to explore his sexual identity.
"I knew, gut instinct, that something serious was going to happen," she told the Times. "They should have contained him, contained his behavior."
Defense attorneys acknowledged McInerney was the shooter but explained he had reached an emotional breaking point after King made repeated, unwanted sexual advances. They also argued their client came from a violent upbringing and juvenile court would have been the best venue to try him.