Judge Gives 10 Years To Attackers in Atlanta Gay Bashing
On July 13, an Atlanta judge sentenced gang members to five years in prison and five years of probation for the gay bashing of young gay man Brandon White in February, which the men videotaped and posted online. The opposition’s attempt to argue a gay panic defense was rejected by the judge, who called the men bullies and questioned the sincerity of their apologies.
"I’ve always said that I didn’t want to make any decision on what time anyone should get. I thought the judge would be very fair and he was," said bashing victim White of the sentence, in a video posted by ProjectQ Atlanta.
But with the attack and sentencing behind him, White admitted he regrets coming forward, believing that he was used to promote others’ agendas and further victimized by some members of Atlanta’s LGBT community.
"If I had a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t," White told EDGE.
On February 4, 20-year-old White was leaving a convenience store in southwest Atlanta when four African-American male members of a local gang ambushed him and began to punch, kick and slam a tire on him.
"No faggots in Jack City," was the cry heard on the video account of the incident, incredulously filmed by a fellow gang member, then posted online on via the World Star Hip-Hop website. On the video, the gang members can be heard repeatedly calling White a "faggot."
Although White did not immediately report the crime, the video soon went viral and local and national media began to inquire about the victim. Within hours of seeing the video reported on the local news, HIV Intervention Project Executive Director Greg Smith, a 20-year veteran of HIV/AIDS and LGBT community organizing, began his own search for White.
"If they hurt one of us, they hurt all of us," said Smith. "I was furious at what I saw on that video, and I wanted to help."
Through his various ties in the community, Smith was quickly able to connect with White. Smith assisted in helping him find legal and mental health counseling. He also organized a February 8 press conference, at which White revealed himself as the victim of the attack.
"I feel as though I should have justice because those guys didn’t feel my pain. They didn’t care whether or not I was in pain. I could have died that day," said White during the press conference.
White went on to call his attackers "monsters" and explained that he had not planned to come forward until he became aware of the videotape.
"But them going ahead and putting the video on the Internet, I feel they wanted the attention for themselves," said White. "They wanted to make themselves look like they were great, they were strong. But in my opinion, I’m the brave one."
White also stated during the press conference that he did not know his attackers, an assertion that later came under fire from the very people charged with helping White get back on his feet.
Change Atlanta Denounces White as "Liar"
Joining White at the February 8 press conference were many Atlanta community leaders and activists, including Devin Barrington-Ward, a representative of a fledgling organization called Change Atlanta.
Barrington-Ward and some colleagues met with the mother of Dorian Moragne, 19, one of White’s attackers, and Moragne’s lawyer, Jay Abt. Based on information they received solely from that meeting, Change Atlanta publicly denounced White as a liar, and accused him of knowing his attackers prior to the beating.
Despite the lack of any credible evidence to support these claims, the local CBS affiliate WGCL later aired an interview with Change Atlanta representatives, restating these unfounded accusations. The report painted White as a liar, and attempted to argue a ’gay panic’ defense. It left White regretting having come forward to name his attackers.
Following an outcry from various segments of the community and no evidence to support their claims, Barrington-Ward and the other accusers later apologized, but never formally recanted their prior accusations.
"To Mr. White, know that I am sorry for any hurt I may have personally caused, whether you knew them or not you were attacked and justice for you and healing for all communities affected is all that matters. I am a young man and a leader in development, who is learning lessons daily," wrote Barrington-Ward in a Facebook posting.
Although the situation with Change Atlanta was disheartening to White, he was even more shocked to discover that a coalition of nearly two dozen LGBT activists were advocating no jail time for his attackers, who had been arrested within weeks of the beating.
"With great respect to the Court, we must reiterate that we believe the homophobia underlying physical attacks on LGBTQ individuals is not remedied through imprisonment," read the activists letter, submitted to Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford.
Among the signers of the letter was Holiday Simmons, a national community educator for Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national LGBT legal organization. Lambda Legal quickly made it very clear that Simmons signed the letter in his individual capacity and did not represent the position of Lambda Legal.
Matt Hennie, the founder and co-owner of Project Q Atlanta, an award-winning, LGBT, online Atlanta-based media outlet, believed that the individuals who supported leniency for White’s attackers had good intentions, but felt that White’s was not the right case in which to make this stand.
"[Brandon] was victimized when he was attacked, victimized again when he was thrown under the bus by Change Atlanta and again a third time by those that requested probation," said Hennie, who reported extensively on the case.
Local Judge Not Swayed By Half-Hearted Apologies
Given the violent nature of the crime and the fact that the attackers had prior criminal records, Judge Bedford was not swayed by the letter, or the men’s half-hearted apologies. On July 13, he sentenced Moragne, Dareal Demare Williams, 17, and Christopher Cain, 19, to five years in prison and five years of probation.
The men, who faced up to 75 years of prison, had previously plead guilty and stated that they had no prior relationship with White. A fourth suspect in the beating, 24-year-old Javaris Bradford, remains at large.
Hennie viewed the quick and professional response by Atlanta’s police and the District Attorney’s office as one of the positives of White’s case. But he now fears that future cases may not be pursued as aggressively if law enforcement officials are led to believe that vocal representatives of the LGBT community do not support the prosecution of individuals who commit hate crimes.
According to The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ report "Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2011", LGBT people of color are twice as likely as others to experience physical violence.
And Smith, who never doubted White, was moved to start an anti-violence initiative called Speak Out Georgia. He believes that the reaction by segments of the community has been damaging, and worries that there will be more questioning and second-guessing by the public when a victim reports a violent crime, deterring victims from reporting crime.
"Throughout the whole process, people attacked my character. No one talked about the fact that I’m a high school graduate and was working as a medical assistant. I had a life," said White, who hopes he will be able to turn his dramatic situation into a positive.
Statewide LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality praised prosecutors for their work in the case and called on lawmakers to pass a hate crime law in the state. Georgia is one of five states without such a measure.
"It is important to make a statement to would-be offenders, as well as to the gay and transgender community, that bias-motivated crimes intended to intimidate and terrorize an entire community will absolutely not be tolerated and will receive maximum punishment," said GE Deputy Director Melinda Sheldon in a statement. "It is time for lawmakers in Georgia to pass hate crimes legislation. Give our local law enforcement agencies the tools and support they need to investigate and prosecute bias motivated crimes and build safer communities for all Georgians."