Issues of bias against black suspect, gay victims surface in Miss. murder case

January 30, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

LAUREL, Miss. -- It's dark at night out on the northern edge of town. A stagnant bayou lies beside abandoned railroad tracks, and silence hangs like moss from the trees. Marvin McClendon rode out to Laurel's outskirts in October with two men he didn't know -- two gay men he said had picked him up on the street near his home.

Because Marvin emerged alone, only he can testify to what led the three to that spot. What is known is this: Ever since that night, when the high school student admits he shot Robert Walters and Joseph Shoemake in the head, this southern Mississippi town has become an unlikely national battleground over the issue of gay- and lesbian-related violence.

Did Marvin, a 16-year-old with a reputation as a troublemaker, hijack the men's vehicle and take them to the woods for the purpose of robbing them, as the police allege? Or did the men lure the youth there to force him to have sex, which is what he contends?

Yet another scenario is posited by gay-rights organizations across the country, which have been closely monitoring the case. Citing previous allegations of death threats against gay men and lesbians in the rural county and national statistics that show that dozens of homosexuals are murdered annually, they contend that the two men possibly were targeted solely because they were gay -- a possibility authorities immediately dismissed.

The organizations have asked the Justice Department to investigate local officials' handling of the case.

The case invokes inflammatory stereotypes that threaten not only to increase tensions between homosexuals and heterosexuals but also between blacks and homosexuals. Mr. Walters, 34, and Mr. Shoemake, 24, were white, and Marvin, his lawyer contends, is being prosecuted only because he fits the stereotypical image of the "big, menacing black male."

Marvin's trial begins today. To counter what he calls racism that works against his client, attorney J. Ronald Parrish plans to paint a portrait of Walters and Shoemake as predatory gay pedophiles out cruising for sex.

Officials of gay-rights groups say they are outraged that a Jones County circuit court judge is allowing testimony about the two men's sexual orientation and that he allowed HIV tests to be performed on their blood. The judge will decide during the trial whether the test results may be entered as evidence.

Mr. Parrish argues that the tests are relevant. Suggesting that one of the men was HIV-positive, he said: "If he knew he could inflict death on a person that he has sex with, then a jury's entitled to know that's what his state of mind was."

Using language that gay groups contend is designed to pit blacks against homosexuals and play upon Bible Belt conservatism, Mr. Parrish compares gay-rights activists to "a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob" and accuses them of going after his client unjustly to draw attention to their pro-gay-rights cause.

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