A Southern California teenager was sentenced Monday to 21 years in state prison for killing a gay junior high school student during a computer lab class, capping an emotional and tumultuous case that focused attention on how schools deal with sexual identity issues.
Brandon McInerney was sentenced under terms of a plea agreement calling for him to report to prison next month, after he turns 18. McInerney, dressed in a white T-shirt and blue pants, didn't speak at the hearing. His lawyer, Scott Wippert, said his client was sorry for killing 15-year-old Larry King.
"He feels deeply remorseful and stated repeatedly if he could go back and take back what he did, he would do it in a heartbeat," Wippert said.
McInerney pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and unlawful use of a firearm. A mistrial was declared in September when jurors couldn't reach a unanimous decision on the degree of guilt. Several jurors said afterward that they didn't think McInerney should have been tried as an adult.
McInerney had just turned 14 when he shot King at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard. Prosecutors alleged the crime was the result of a homophobic rage spurred by King's feminine clothing and unwanted sexual advances toward McInerney.
The killing became a flashpoint for gay rights groups, who said it was further evidence that children often pay a horrible price when they come out. Comic Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian, weighed in on her talk show and said gays shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens.
Because of pretrial publicity, the trial was moved from Ventura County to Los Angeles.
Defense attorneys, who unsuccessfully argued to keep the case in juvenile court, said McInerney reached an emotional breaking point after King's many advances. They said he snapped when he heard King wanted to change his first name to Latisha.
School administrators were criticized for not doing more to quell a simmering feud between the two teens and for allowing King to wear heels and makeup. School district officials have cited federal law providing students the right to express their sexual orientation.
King's family and Deputy District Attorney Maeve Fox wore buttons with the teen's face on it, while some of McInerney's supporters wore powder blue wristbands that read "Save Brandon."
At the sentencing hearing, King's father, Greg King, blamed the school district for not following through on the family's request to help tone down their son's flamboyant behavior. King's mother, Dawn King, has said she met with school officials four days before the February 2008 shooting hoping they would assist
Greg King said the family can't forgive McInerney.
"You took upon yourself to be a bully and to hate a smaller kid, wanting to be the big man on campus,'" he said from a statement read on behalf of Dawn King. "'You have left a big hole in my heart where Larry was and it can never be filled.'"
Outside of court, Dawn Boldrin, a teacher who gave King her daughter's homecoming dress, had kind words for both of the teens.
"I probably would just hug him," Boldrin said when asked what she would do if she could meet McInerney. "I know he's a good kid."
During the trial, prosecutors portrayed McInerney as a teen who couldn't control his anger and was influenced by white supremacy ideology. Jurors rejected their claim that the killing was a hate crime.
Prosecutors said the shooting in front of stunned classmates was first-degree murder and that McInerney should be punished as an adult.
Under teams of the plea bargain, McInerney's murder conviction was stayed and he received the harshest possible sentence under California law for voluntary manslaughter — 11 years — and use of a firearm — 10 years. McInerney is ineligible for time served or good behavior because he pleaded guilty to murder.
Following the hearing, defense attorney Robyn Bramson said McInerney is close to getting his high school diploma and plans to take advantage of any opportunity afforded him in prison.
"I really think this is a story that if you follow up in 21 years you'll find a kid who has rehabilitated himself," she said.