In a time when adolescent gender expression becomes more commonplace and gradually accepted by the mainstream, it is almost unthinkable to imagine a premeditated murder between eighth grade peers. Such was the case in the widely reported murder trial of an Oxnard, CA teenager after he shot and killed his openly gay and possibly transgender classmate while at school.
The proceedings leading up to, and surrounding, the nearly four-year process leading to the plea deal accepted by McInerney are the subject of "Valentine Road," a gasp-inducing, 90-minute account of the case that debuted Monday, Oct. 7, as the premiere of HBO Documentaries Fall 2013 season.
The 2008 shooting death of a slight young man named Lawrence King by Brendon McInerney has as many twists and turns as a work of fiction. Sadly, the events depicted in this film actually happened.
King is referred to throughout Marta Cunningham’s documentary as having been "gay" because he reportedly asked McInerney to be his Valentine. (That’s not where this film gets its title, though it does dovetail with the tragic story. King is buried in a cemetery located on Valentine Road.) It seems more likely that King was transgender; as interview subjects in the film recall, King had started wearing makeup and girls’ shoes to school. It might have been King’s way of donning a kind of psychological body armor; it might also have been a way of expressing an inner gender identity.
In any case, King’s dressing up, while causing consternation among some of the school’s staff, didn’t elicit much sympathy or concern for the student himself (except from one lone teacher, who was subsequently summarily fired). The day after asking McInerney to be his valentine, King suffered the injuries that would kill him: After having talked about killing King, McInerney shot the other boy twice within the school’s computer lab. In between times, McInerney had taken the gun from his grandfather’s room and, having forgotten to pack it on the morning of the shooting, even returned to fetch the weapon.
This sequence of events is not in dispute. What generates controversy is the question of why McInerney responded with lethal force. Was it due to homophobia? If so, what role did his drawings of swastikas and Nazi soldiers say about his mindset?
Or was McInerney, who had suffered abuse in his young life, carrying so much rage that the idea of being found attractive by a gay or transgender classmate simply caused him to snap?
This latter idea gains purchase as years drag by. McInerney’s defense lawyers take an interest out of a rejection in principle of a California law that allows underage offenders to be prosecuted and sentenced as if they were adults, but their efforts on McInerney’s behalf can’t help feeding into a perception that King somehow brought his death on himself. (McInerney’s mother, and former jurors from his first trial, characterize the young offender has "solving a problem" in having killed King.)
Sadly, one gets the sense from a number of school staff that this is a prevailing sentiment. It’s the old "gay panic / gay flamboyance" storyline. What is not given is a chance to meet McInerney and decide for ourselves; though we meet his family and his girlfriend, all we see of McInerney himself is archival material.
In a film so detailed, this omission glares. We’re never given an explanation (did McInerney refuse to talk to the filmmaker? Did the law not allow an interview?), but we do see the effect McInerney has had on his defense team; one of his lawyers simply says, "I love him." That makes the question marks in the case all the more insistent, and gives the film a sense of threads left hanging.
For schedule and other information, visit www.hbo.com/#/documentaries/valentine-road/index.html