Just before the beginning of the trial of Marvin McClendon for the execution-style murders of Joe Shoemake and Bobby Walters in Laurel, Mississippi, media interest in the case intensified.
McClendon's attorney was trumpeting his defense theory on the radio, in the newspapers, even on television -- that Walters and Shoemake, as gay men, were likely to have HIV, which made their picking up McClendon in their truck tantamount to stalking him with a loaded gun, and which therefore justified their murders as self-defense. The press, for the most part, focused on the "novelty" of the defense attorney's HIV-related justifiable homicide defense.
No one reported the sordid details of the trial. The centerpiece of the defense's case was the subpoena-compelled testimony of seven of the murdered men's gay friends, including Shoemake's and Walters' surviving partners. The defense attorney questioned each man about the details of their social and sexual relationships with Walters and Shoemake, about whether they or the victims had brought home "blacks" or "Mexican men" for sex, about whether they had ever watched each other having sex with such men, about whether they knew or had heard anything about the victims' HIV status. The prosecution objected to this testimony, but the judge allowed all of it in as relevant to the issue before the jury: the guilt of Marvin McClendon, who shot Bobby Walters through the eye, and shot Joe Shoemake through the temple.
In arguing that the postmortem HIV antibody test results of these men also should be admitted into evidence, the defense attorney insisted that if one of the victims had HIV, "he was out not only to gratify some licentious depraved sexual desire" but also, in effect, to commit murder.
Ignoring the complete absence of legal support for the admission into evidence of the test results, the judge allowed them.
In his closing argument, the defense attorney told the jury that they were "the bastions of protection from this kind of thing for the citizens of the United States," that the case really was about "people trying to satisfy ... their base, depraved desires at the expense of another person." Then he closed by reading from the Bible, of how men who "did shameful things with men" received "the penalty for their perversity."
The defense attorney shamelessly pushed every fear and hate button he could finger, confident that the "average" Jones County resident would find the fact of these two men's sexual orientation, and the sex lives of gay men, so repulsive that they would find their murder justifiable.
But something happened in the process. The assistant prosecutor, an admitted conservative initially uncomfortable even with the words to describe our community, began to talk about a hurtful, and similar, local history of racial and religious prejudice and segregation, and voiced his outrage that a defense would be attempted through a wholesale condemnation of an entire community. The defense attorney countered with his disgust at the attempt to compare his tactics to racial or religious prejudice against other groups, conjuring up a depiction of Bobby Walters and Joe Shoemake, and their friends, as somehow less than human. But he underestimated a quality of most communities -- a durable capacity for decency.
The jurors' guilty verdict was an eloquent refutation of the assumption that the citizens of Laurel could find morality in murder if the victims were gay and one had HIV. The trial itself offered a powerful lesson about hate, fear and prejudice -- how some will always use it against us, but how wrong we can be to assume without a fight that any community will respond more readily to bias than to tolerance and justice.
Catherine Hanssens is the AIDS Project Director at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization committed to achieving the full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.
This article is an excerpt from the Summer 1995 edition of The Lambda Update, the tri-annual newsletter of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.