Corbett, Ken. “A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High”, Henry Holt and Co., 2016.
A Brutal Murder
Psychologist Ken Corbett gives us a gripping, troubling, and moving exploration of the brutal murder of a possibly transgender middle school student by an eighth grade classmate
On February 12, 2008, at E. O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, CA, fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney shot and killed his classmate, Larry King, who had recently begun to call himself “Leticia” and wear makeup and jewelry to school. Those of us with minds and consciences are shaken and unsettled to hear new like this but we are without resources to help. Media coverage sidestepped the issues of gender identity and of race that are not only important but integral to the case and this is what caused Ken Corbett to travel to Los Angeles to attend the trial. As stories of victim and perpetrator were told and pulled apart in the courtroom, Corbett realized that a haunting picture was emerging, not only of the two young teenagers, but also of spectators and the community that had aided to bring about the murder. Even if this was unwitting, it was important. We must never forget that hate is not an instinct but a learned emotion. Now Corbett shares what he learned from firsthand observations, extensive interviews and research and his own years of of academic work on gender and sexuality. Not only does he hold up each detail of the case, he explores what brought everything to a head. What we read is stranger than fiction as we look at the human psyche and the cracks in our culture that allowed something like this to happen and we see that healing can only come with understanding. While this is a difficult book to read, it is a book that must be read by all of us. What Corbett gives us is powerful documentation of this country’s fear of
gender difference. We are taken to the place where a transgendered child’s daring bid to become a girl met with the murderous rage of a boy who had been well taught to use a gun. While a murdered girl whose life is undocumented is gone , she lives on in Corbett’s brilliant words. The narration we read is about those who make hatred into a form of pernicious reasoning and the failure of the legal system and how smart arguments make the murderers to be victims and the dead are not even considered. It hurts just to write this words and to think that in the greatest democracy the world has ever known that something like this was allowed to happen. Here was a crime in which there was no pathos for the victim but rather for theclassmates, parents, jurors, lawyers, and others who had to deal with the case. Corbett reveals the flaws of “the American judicial system, the destructive influence of sensationalizing mass media, and the blindness of good intentions at the intersection of masculinity, grief, prejudice, and empathy.” We see that the consequences of dehumanization hide a “consequential and potentially fatal refusal to confront loss”. Corbett confronts that loss and brings forth justice as he gives the victim her “dignity, her subjectivity and her agency” back.
With the death of this one young teenager at the hands of another, the contemporary dividing lines of race, gender, class, orientation, homophobia, privilege, and fear of the unknown enter a California courtroom. We do not have the voices of the victim, Leticia/Larry who was dead and Brandon McInerney, the murderer never told his own story in court or elsewhere. Therefore we get no easy resolution and even if we did, the fact is that one teen is dead at the hands of another. What really is galling and appalling is that it was made to show that McInerney’s actions were normalized and even justified at both the trial and within the community. His actions were, quite simply, it is claimed as a way to deal with Larry/Leticia’s explorations of his/her gender. We see that even with increased acceptance of (certain kinds of) gender and sexual variance in mainstream society, most Americans are still extremely uncomfortable with non-normative gender expression. In the school system this is profound and the discomfort that it brings puts LGBT children at risk (particularly in school settings) and that this discomfort can result in the taking of life.
Brandon McInerney took a gun from home, hid it in his backpack to take to school the next day and later moved into a pocket in his sweatshirt. No one saw this, it is said. In computer class, he took his gun at very close range. The victim did not die instantly, but succumbed to those injuries later in the hospital. What you have just read are the facts in the case. The prosecution sought to convict Brandon on first-degree murder as an adult based on the facts of the case, as well as testimony and his overt and public hatred of Larry/Leticia and there was testimony that he, in fact, said before the event that he wanted to either hurt or kill his classmate. The defense painted a different picture and claimed that Brandon had been abused all of his life and was sexually harassed by Larry at school. This is what forced him to resort to violence. Even though testimony did not seem to support this position, many in the jury believed it to be true and the result was a hung jury. A plea deal was ultimately reached. It is Corbett’s use of conversations that he was apart of that makes this such a compelling read. He spoke with those involved in the case behind the scenes and shares his insights as to why people testified as they did.
The trial was a farce because the jury was manipulated by the attorneys who wanted to win. It is extremely difficult to defend a fourteen-year-old boy who murders a fifteen-year-old boy/girl. The book is a look at the loss of American values that are taught in the schools of this country.