VENTURA, Calif. — A teen who fatally shot a gay junior high classmate in the back of the head during a computer lab nearly four years ago was sentenced Monday to 21 years in state prison, capping an emotional case that focused attention on how schools deal with sexual identity.
Brandon McInerney, 17, dressed in a white T-shirt and blue pants, didn't speak at the hearing, but his lawyer 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," Scott Wippert said.
McInerney will report to prison next month, after he turns 18. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and unlawful use of a firearm after jurors deadlocked during his trial as an adult on a first-degree murder charge.
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 in front of shocked classmates at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard on Feb. 12, 2008. Prosecutors alleged it was a hate crime driven by homophobic rage because King wore girl's clothing and flirted with McInerney.
The killing became a flashpoint for gay rights groups that 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 County.
King's father, Greg King, read a four-page letter lambasting everyone from jurors, who he called incompetent, to the media for not focusing enough on school leaders "bungled" handling of his son's situation. He said the shooting had scarred students who testified, calling it their "9/11."
School administrators were criticized for not doing enough in the weeks leading up to the killing at the Oxnard school to quell a simmering feud between the two boys and for allowing King to wear heels and makeup. School district officials said they were upholding federal law by protecting Larry King's right to express his sexual orientation.
Greg King blamed the school district for not heeding requests by his wife to help tone down their son's flamboyant behavior, despite having a plan that called for preventing the boy from drawing attention to himself.
"The school could have and should have prevented Larry from engaging in the provocative behavior he was involved in," he said.
He saved his strongest statements for McInerney, who he said his family couldn't forgive.
"You took upon yourself to be a bully and to hate a smaller kid, wanting to be the big man on campus,'" Greg King said to McInerney on behalf of his wife. "`You have left a big hole in my heart where Larry was and it can never be filled.'"
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." Some teachers and jurors also attended the hearing.
Outside 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 supremacist ideology. Jurors rejected the claim that the killing was a hate crime.
Prosecutors said the plotted killing was first-degree murder and that McInerney should be punished as an adult.
Defense attorneys, who unsuccessfully argued to keep the case in juvenile court, said McInerney reached an emotional breaking point after King's advances. They said he snapped when he heard King wanted to change his first name to Latisha.
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 for 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.