LOS ANGELES — Defense attorneys for a California teenager accused of taking a gun to school and shooting a gay classmate in the head worked Thursday to chip away at the prosecution's claim that the killing was a hate crime fueled by homophobia and white supremacist sympathies.
In the case that brought national attention to the issue of violence against gays, lawyers for defendant Brandon McInerney were working 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 King and instead was the victim of a violent upbringing who was unable to articulate his rage and frustration at unwanted sexual advances from King.
His lead attorney, Scott Wippert, on Thursday continued a 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 the books of McInerney.
"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.
"Our defense is that the killing was the result of provocation and the heat of passion," defense attorney Robyn Bramson said outside court, adding that McInerney had been abused by his father, who died in 2009, and had been neglected as a boy.
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, previously testified that King paraded around in makeup and high heels in front of McInerney the day before the killing. 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 King's civil rights, even though the clothes he was wearing violated school dress code, than recognizing that his behavior was making other students uncomfortable.
"It kept going on and the administration wasn't doing anything about it," Bramson said.
McInerney did not speak during Thursday's proceedings but stood to watch jurors as they filed into the suburban Chatsworth courtroom.
Wearing a crisp white shirt with light gray stripes and with his dark hair swept back across his head, McInerney looked little like the fresh-faced boy in his yearbook photograph.
The case is being heard in Los Angeles because authorities decided intense media coverage in Ventura County could have impacted the jury pool.
The defense was expected to rest Friday, with closing arguments likely next week.