Bil Browning

Aaron Hall: Gays as the scapegoat

Filed By Bil Browning | June 21, 2007 3:25 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: Aaron Hall, Bloomington Alternative, Dexter Lewis, gay panic, hate crimes against LGBT people, Indiana, Indianapolis, Laura McPhee, Michael Sandy, murder, New York, Nuvo, race, sexuality, violence

Let's revisit my hate crimes post that focused on the murder of Aaron Hall from last week. That post is still getting quite a bit of traffic, and I need to clarify something that's arisen time and time again in the comments section. Plus, I've found some other articles online that I'd like to point out to our readers.

The point of my original entry was to try to explain why the media wasn't reporting about Aaron Hall's murder as a reason why Indiana should have a hate crimes law. And I stand by my original assertion - it's simply too murky of a case to use as a defining example of a hate crime.

In looking back over my old post, one of the most clipped paragraphs on other sites was this one:

Now, as I said earlier, this is indeed a horrible and gruesome murder. The details of what happened that night and during the week following will turn your stomach. But the problem that folks are going to have in trying to promote the story as a reason to enact hate crimes legislation (and the reason why I haven't blogged about it before) is simple - Aaron Hall wasn't a gay man. He was a middle-aged, white, straight man and the last I checked, hate crimes legislation was about protecting members of a minority group when someone commits a crime intended to intimidate other members of the community. This simply doesn't fit the definition of a hate crime.

I realize that my original post wasn't clear enough, but I intended this portion to go with the rest of the argument and not as a stand alone piece. I understand that perception counts when deciding whether or not a hate crime has been committed. Instead, I was trying to point out that the accused were trying to play the "gay panic" card after the fact - a move that has resulted in the hate crime allegations. In the next paragraph I attempted to explain:
While the attackers are trying to use the "gay panic" defense for their actions, the facts simply don't match up to mark this as a hate crime. The "gay panic" defense, which is not legally recognized, means that the attacker was propositioned by a gay person and responded violently when they "panicked." It has been used successfully in some cases and the defendants are trying to use it here. Unfortunately, for the overzealous bloggers though, "gay panic" and "hate crimes" aren't necessarily inter-related.

And I still think this is correct - while "gay panic" is a form of hate crime, it isn't a hate crime if the perpetrators only attempt to use that excuse after the fact. It's the motivation when the crime happened that's important - not the story concocted afterwards. I think that too much has been made of the hate crimes assertion and too little of the perpetrator's (or their advisor's) choice of defense.

Now that I have the time to explain myself a little more fully, let's look at the facts of this case as they've been reported...

  • Aaron Hall was a white, middle-aged petty criminal with a meth and alcohol addiction.
  • According to Hall's family and friends he wasn't gay.
  • Official reports say that Garrett Gray, Coleman King and Robert Hendricks were drinking with Hall shortly before his death
  • Gray and King are accused of beating Hall to death after Hall grabbed King's crotch and asked him to perform oral sex.
  • The beating went on for hours until the three men loaded Hall's body into the bed of a pickup truck and dumped him in a ditch beside a country road.
  • The men went back and retrieved Hall's lifeless body and hid it in Gray's garage
  • Ten days after the beating, the body was discovered in Gray's garage after one of Hendrick's friends turned in the trio

But some important questions haven't been answered with this recounting. Right now to some it sounds like a straight-forward hate crime. But let's put on our thinking caps and look at this a little more closely. After all, if I can put reasonable doubt in your mind, how easy will it be for the defense lawyer to do the same thing in court? We'd all hate to see these three creeps get away with murder, so perhaps our focus should come off of "hate crimes" and be put into investigating the real crime(s) involved. It's not my intent to see these men walk for a horrendous murder. I just don't want to see it labeled as a hate crime, end up not being one and damage our chances at finally passing needed legislation here in Indiana.

These are some of the questions and concerns I have about the gruesome killing:

  1. Why was a middle-aged meth addict hanging out with kids barely out of high school? Was he there to buy or use drugs? No matter how you look at it, it's not typical behavior for a 35 year old man to be hanging out and drinking with a bunch of underage kids.
  2. The Bloomington Alternative reports that Gray's house "was something of a teen drug haven, and that at the time of the first punch to Aaron's body, some number of other teenagers were present." Who are these other teenagers and what do they have to say about the incident?
  3. Hall's beating went on for hours. How do two men keep up the energy to continue an assault this vicious for hours while a third just hangs out and watches? What motivation other than a hate crime usually involves attacking someone for an extended period of time to send a message? One easy answer in my mind is drugs. Look around our state and see how many violent crimes are committed either because of drugs or because the victim or offender were using drugs at the time? This would also explain why the attack went on for so long. Ever seen a meth user when they're on the shit? They'll go for days at super-high-out-of-your-mind-speed doing crazy things. Think of the stories we hear all the time of meth users having sex for hours when it seems to them that time stands still...
  4. Gray's father is the elected appointed deputy coroner for Jackson County, but he can't smell a ten-day-dead corpse in his own garage? Did Dad already know about the murder before the body was discovered? According to the Crothersville Times, a witness said 19-year-old Garrett Gray, upon learning that Hall was dead, "began vomiting and making statements of what his dad would say when he found out about this incident." Did Dad help them come up with their defense or attempt to help hide the crime?
  5. The boys had a full ten days to come up with a reason as to why they beat Aaron Hall to death. They opted to say that Hall grabbed King's crotch and asked King to perform oral sex on him. Now, think about that for a second. Does a man usually grab someone else's crotch when asking for oral sex? Or does the man grab his own crotch and say, "Suck my dick"? Or what about the opposite, where the guy grabs someone else's crotch and says "I'll suck your dick"? The first is uncommon but the second two examples I've seen personally. With Hall going to hang out and drink with the teens, who is in the power position? I've seen a lot of meth addicts that would willingly have sex with just about anyone for a fix. Of course, I've also seen reports that the whole thing was a slur towards King's girlfriend and not King. Was she there too?
  6. How often do the stories of three men accused of murder match almost exactly? There's usually a component of "He did it. Not me." In this case though, the stories match almost completely. This seems to be the hallmark of the defendants conspiring to come up with a cohesive story or at least some sort of mutual defense. Now, factor in that all of the kids were drunk at the time of the crime over a week before and reflect on how likely it is for all those stories to match so well. You can see my skepticism here.
  7. With Gray's father a[n] popularly elected official in Jackson County can there be a cover up going on? It obviously wouldn't be good politically for the county coroner's house to be exposed as a local teen drug hang out, now would it? As the Bloomington Alternative reports:
    The influence of power cannot be ignored, either. Hushed tones accompany the mention of certain names, and the ever-present buzz of fear has residents considering using false names or refusing, outright, to speak on record... Most are afraid to go on the record, for fear that local law enforcement will remember the indignity and further abuse their power through false arrests, trumped-up charges, botched investigations and abject corruption.
    What role does corruption play in this? Is it a cover-up?
  8. Why was Hall naked when his body was found? If those teens were so homophobic they gruesomely murdered Hall, why did they strip him naked? Removing all of the victim's clothes often adds a sexual component to the crime. Was Hall meant to live and just be entirely humiliated? This could also explain why the accused took pictures of Hall during and after his beating and sent them around to other teens. It sure looks like they were trying to send a message and that message could just as easily be, "Look what happens when you fuck with your dealer" as "Smear the queer."

I, personally, think that there are plenty of reasons not to tout this as a picture perfect hate crime. To me it has all the hallmarks of a drug crime. The "gay panic" defense is clearly disturbing in that the accused (or their advisors) obviously thought that it would explain away their actions. That is the reason to point out why hate crimes are necessary: the kids thought by saying Hall was gay they'd be able to, literally, get away with murder. What does this say about the lives of LGBTQ Hoosiers? That if we express our sexuality we deserve to be beaten to death? That if someone is gay - or is suspected of being gay - it's okay to murder them?

"Gay panic" will often lead to a hate crime. By not recognizing hate crimes to start with and by giving "gay panic" defenses a wink and a nod, is the state not only tacitly endorsing violence against our community but effectively reducing the attackers' punishment? Because, remember that this is a moot argument in Indiana - the men didn't commit a hate crime legally because we don't have a hate crimes law. The social injustice of the "gay panic" defense as a tool to attempt to gain sympathy with the jury is a much more compelling reason to argue in favor of hate crimes legislation. Rather than trying to portray a gruesome murder as a hate crime when other alternatives are clearly possible, let's start a discussion about the moral cesspool that is the "gay panic" defense.

In all, I think the questions that I still have about this case help to explain why the mainstream media haven't jumped on the bandwagon to label this a hate crime. It doesn't, however, excuse the neglect that the media has shown in covering the case at all. As I explained in my previous post, I think that has a lot more to do with the bottom line, circulation figures, etc. than a deliberate attempt to muzzle a story. We all know "If it bleeds, it leads." Unfortunately, this story bleeds in an area the Indy Star doesn't sell newspapers in...

In fact, in a recent Nuvo story by Laura McPhee, she looks at another case neglected by the media besides Aaron Hall. This story is obviously a hate crime - and it should be the example our legislators and citizens scrutinize as an example of why hate crimes laws are needed. A black man was severely beaten on the downtown streets of Indianapolis by skinheads just as the hate crimes legislation died in the statehouse this year. The Indy Star's neglect of this story is definitely worthy of discussion as well. You can't say Indianapolis is outside of the Indy Star circulation area!

In closing, I'd like to point out a fascinating article from the New York Times which recently mused, "To Commit a Hate Crime, Must the Criminal Truly Hate the Victim?" In a New York criminal case, three defendants are charged with murdering Michael Sandy:

Prosecutors have said a group of young men contacted Mr. Sandy through an online gay chat room, selecting him as a robbery victim in the belief that a gay man would be unwilling or unable to put up a fight and unlikely to report the crime.

The defendants -- John Fox, 20; Ilya Shurov, 21; and Anthony Fortunato, 21 -- have been charged not just with murder, but with murder under the state Hate Crimes Act of 2000, which provides longer prison sentences for crimes motivated "in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person."

Prosecutors and defense lawyers have presented contrasting interpretations of that phrase, the words it includes and the words it omits.

In court documents, a defense lawyer has asked Justice Konviser-Levine to dismiss the enhanced murder charges against all three defendants because "the crimes alleged are not crimes of hate but rather crimes of opportunity."

Hate crimes can be tricky things. Is Sandy's case a hate crime if hate wasn't the motive? Is Hall's case a hate crime when sexuality may not have been the real reason for the attack? I think that sometimes we may be too quick to jump on the bandwagon without examining things closely enough; I know I've done it before. We want to claim the moral high ground so badly we'll climb there no matter what - without realizing that we already had it to start with.

After all, if homophobia and hate had nothing to do with Aaron Hall's murder - and was just an excuse invented days after - is it a hate crime? I don't think so. It's a horrible attempt to cover up the crime by using gays as the scapegoat. While still atrocious, it is vastly different. As I said before, if this turns out to be a homophobic attack, I'll be the first one to use it as an example of a hate crime. But for now, I'm going to hold off on that. I'll be talking about "gay panic."

I don't have all the answers, but I have a lot of questions.

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anonymous345 | June 21, 2007 4:07 PM

Sorry, this was indeed a hate crime. No doubt about it. These thugs were like a pack of rabid dogs and when (and it probably happened) Hall put the moves on one of them, they went off on him -- because it was perceived as gay sex.

Hate Crime

1) You have glaring error you should correct. Terry Gray is not the elected coroner of Jackson Co. He is a deputy coroner appointed by the elected coroner, Andy Rumph.

2) You omit that Hall spent considerable time behind bars--a 5'4" shorty to be precise. Local folks talked about how he was "a bitch" in prison, if you know what I mean, and it's not hard to imagine given his small, petite build.

3) There has been no proof of meth use at the home on that night. There is proof of the alcohol they purchased from a local liquor store. The photos and videotapes of the men after their arrest does not show the faces of meth heads--one that is quite discernible in police mugshot photos.

4) You speak of these 3 men as if they were young boys. They are adults ranging in age from 18-21. Are you telling me you've never hung out with younger guys? Can we assume there was something nefarious because of the age difference? Maybe, but maybe not. Because two of the men were under the legal alcohol age, Hall broke the law if he was furnishing them the alcohol;however, King said he purchased the alcohol before he picked up Hall. But if the parents allowed the underage drinking in the Gray home, it seems they are the ones who should be questioned.

5) You speak of the story being made up. You must remember that the story broke based on the tip of the friend who was at work and was text-message the photo of Hall and who heard Hall in the background screaming as Gray and King beat him. He learned of the reason the beating took place contemporaneously with it happening. "Hodge said Hendricks told him Hall grabbed King in the groin and told him he wanted King to perform oral sex. Hendricks also said Hall made some comment about Gray's deceased mother. Then there was an altercation." It seems to me that King and Cole were locked into that story since Hendricks had already told Hodge that's what happened on the night of the killing. Hodge wasn't implicated in the killing; he had no reason to lie to police. If Hodge hadn't come forward, Hall's body may have been moved and never found and his disappearance would have remained a mystery.

6) The stories told by the 4 men didn't match exactly. For example, King said Gray was the one who said Hall had to die and insisted they return to the scene with Gray's shotgun. Gray didn't recount this in his story. Henricks claimed Hall insulted Gray's mother, but Gray didn't mention it. Their version of the beating and how long it lasted varied as well.

7) The fact that the men had been drinking would not necessarily affect a person's memory. Most people don't have blackouts or periods they can't remember unless they are really serious problem drinkers.

8) Stripping the body naked may well suggest he may have been sexually assaulted. Perhaps this is the part of the story none of the men want to admit to. Were they giving Hall a taste of what he had to endure in prison? The coroner's autopsy may give us some clues on that; however, because so many days passed after his death, I question whether the medical examiner could make this determination.

The blog world has kept this story alive. Gary gets credit and gratitude for refusing to look away, as others have. Bil, thank you for continuing to analyze Aaron Hall's tragic death as well.
I've said from the get-go that the viciousness and the amount of effort, time, etc. that went into the beating/murder put it in some kind of special class.
As for the meth angle, we have had a lot of meth problems out here in West Central Indiana; usually it's the meth addicts' kids who are victims, of abuse and neglect. I'm not convinced that being stoned, whether on booze or meth, would produce this sort of prolonged rage.
I realize hate crimes can be tricky to prove. But based on what I know, this was more than a heat of the moment slaying. Something terrible happened in the heads of those boys that night; what was it that so incensed them? I don't have the answers, just appreciate the chance to try to get at the truth.

Once again I have to disagree with you again. Why is it so hard to believe it was a hate crime?

"No matter how you look at it, it's not typical behavior for a 35 year old man to be hanging out and drinking with a bunch of underage kids."

1) Why was a former Colt's quarterback hosting a party with underage kids drinking? This quarterback is over 35, so I guess it is not so "un- typical".

"Who are these other teenagers and what do they have to say about the incident?"

2) Why haven't the names of the teenagers who are over 18 been releases? Better question is why has there been no criminal charges been pressed against them. They are just as guilty because they did nothing to stop the beating which eventually lead to Aaron's death.

"How do two men keep up the energy to continue an assault this vicious for hours while a third just hangs out and watches?"

3) This might be a better question for Russell Henderson and Aaron McKenney who beat Matthew Shepard for hours and left him hanging on a fence to die.

"Did Dad help them come up with their defense or attempt to help hide the crime?"

4) So why hasn't there been an investigation into the deputy coroner. Shouldn't this be public record as he is a county official working for the citizens of Jackson County? At what lengths would a parent go to protect a child? What lengths would you go to protect your child?

"The boys had a full ten days to come up with a reason as to why they beat Aaron Hall to death."

5) Could it have been that the assumed (admitted) killers asked Aaron Hall of a sexual favor because they thought he was gay, and when he rejected, they beat him to death to cover up their own sexuality?

"How often do the stories of three men accused of murder match almost exactly?"

6) Agree that the basic stories matched, but that might have been to cover up the scenario in statement #5.

"What role does corruption play in this? Is it a cover-up?"

7) Truly believe that there is some type of cover up. The Republic (Columbus newspaper), the Tribune (Seymour newspaper) will not cover any further details on the case. Both have done all but drop the story, even after several request for more information.

"Why was Hall naked when his body was found?"

8) Perhaps after the beating, the accused stripped Hall and rapped his beaten body (the supposed gay man), knowing that he could no longer defend himself. Especially if the info in #5 is true. Not all the autopsy results have been released, so we don't know, or we might not ever know, depending on if there is corruption with the coroner's office.

Something else for you to think about.

To try and run through some of the comments really quickly...

Anon, your situation is possible. So is mine. That's just it - we don't know.

Gary, Thanks for pointing out the error. I've corrected whether Gray's father was elected or not in the post, but appointed or elected, you'd think the coroner would be able to smell a ten-day-dead corpse in his own garage.

I appreciate that you're also searching for answers to this abominable case. In reference to no proof of meth at the house that night, you don't go buy meth at the liquor store. And most houses don't have video cameras to make evidence easy. If the house is known as a teen drug house, chance are high that drugs were involved somehow. And if Dad's a public official, no one's going to want it revealed that Gray was selling drugs. You also don't have to use drugs to sell them... Do any of the mugshots look like meth heads? Not really - only Hall has the look in his picture. But having ten days to come down and off the shit will also do wonders for your looks.

Yes, Hodge heard the beating on the phone. And he got the pic on his phone. And then days later he turned them in - days after he'd seen the naked body in a field. It's not as if he heard the beating and immediately called the cops. As for the stories matching, you have to admit that except for a few minor details, they matched. Three young men spent all day drinking, got so passionate they beat a man to death, had ten days to forget details, and still managed to produce the same story for the most part? I don't buy it.

As Ruth says, you have kept this story alive in the blogosphere, Gary. I just think you're taking the wrong angle on the story.

Michael, It's so hard to believe that it's a hate crime just because of how murky this case is. Other scenarios are completely possible. We want this to be a hate crime, I think, so we can feel justified in our anger at losing the hate crimes legislation. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on this case, our time and energy would be better spent looking into the young black man Laura McPhee mentions in her Nuvo article. But to answer some of your questions with more of my own...

You mention the Colts quarterback as an example of another older man hanging out with teens. Didn't you think it was odd when that happened to? No matter how you slice it, most mid-30's men don't hang out with guys just out of high school.

As for your Matthew Shepard reference, I agree that a hate crime could have produced the hours of beatings. But the questioning continued with the next sentence: "What motivation other than a hate crime usually involves attacking someone for an extended period of time to send a message?" I'm willing to give you hate crime - I just want you to admit that drug crimes also follow the same pattern - as do crimes of passion (husband finds wife with another man, etc).

I agree with you that a cover up is most likely. That's why I don't know that it was a hate crime so much as just a "gay panic" defense thrown in to try and gain sympathy with the jury. I think it's part of the cover-up. As you know, I've lived in the southern Indiana area. I've seen the corruption that's so prevalent in towns like Columbus, Seymour and Crothersville. (I mean, c'mon, one of Columbus's top law enforcement officials runs a live internet gay porn barebacking site with drugs as a main sideline gig!) Being from Columbus, you know the stories of corruption too. Do you really find it so impossible to believe that Dad had a drug ring going (or Gray himself, did) and now wants to cover it up with or without the help of the elected county officials?

I think we all still have lots of questions about the crime. They need answers before we can say definitively "This is what happened." But what we do know is that they men's chosen defense smacks of homophobia and the small town mentality of "destroy those who are different." Which says to me that the area to focus on is "gay panic" and what we can do about the idea that it's okay to murder someone if you just say he came on to you first.

An aspect of the story which hasn't been discussed a whole lot is whether the elected coroner, Andy Rumph, should have recused himself because the body was found in one of his deputy's garage and the deputy's son is one of the accused killers. In the case of a prosecutor, there are provisions in the law for the prosecutor to recuse himself and appoint a special prosecutor. I know of no similar provision for a coroner. Arguably, Rumph should have turned the case over to a coroner in a neigbhoring county, but again, I don't know that the law even allows him to do that. This is one of the reasons we should do away with the antiquated elected coroners and replace them with state medical examiners.

Jen Jorczak | June 22, 2007 10:39 AM

Certainly none of us can claim to know the details of the 3 cases Bil discusses above, but I'll offer MHO: The Lewis case in the NUVO story is clearly a hate crime, and we have the benefit of witnesses to help us establish the fact. (Sadly, it can't be prosecuted as such, since the legislation died.)

I'd argue that the Sandy case was a hate crime, based on the reasoning behind "felony murder" statutes (which say that if you happen to kill someone in the process of committing another felony, you will be charged with murder whether or not the act was premeditated): they chose the victim of the robbery based on his orientation, and wound up killing him. Ideally, they'll be convicted of felony murder and hate crimes.

I'd also argue that the Hall case could be a hate crime. Bil makes very interesting point above about their intent and motive and he may well be right on all counts. But if the defendents are going to try to claim a "gay panic" defense, they are in fact claiming that they killed him because he was gay, and a prosecutor would be well within his authority to charge them accordingly.

Denise Travers | June 22, 2007 3:13 PM

You excerpted from my piece in the Bloomington Alternative. I'm curious as to why you left out the entire discussion about S1105.

*This* is the part that really confounds me. Yes, we lost the battle, this year, for state hate crimes legislation. But, there is still legislation at the federal level, and an active bill in the Senate (already passed the House) to add GLBT, gender and gender identity to already-existing protected classes.

Whether Aaron's murder was a hate crime or not is immaterial. What matters is that the defendants used the hate crime angle in their statements. *IF* GLBT/gender/gender identity was *already* included in LLEEA, Aaron's family could have sought federal assistance to augment the potentially-biased investigation of local Crothersville cops and/or Jackson County sheriff's offices.

*This* is tha part that has me really wondering about the lack of involvement on the part of GLBT activists. It is *precisely* because this case is so convoluted that it becomes an *excellent* argument for passage of S1105.

Denise, You are doing the best reporting out there on this subject in my opinion. I honor all the work you've done on this story. Between you in the media and Gary on his blog, this story's stayed alive between the two of you.

As a journalist, I'm sure you'll understand when I say that while I wanted to include the part you reference, the post was just too darn long already (much longer than my usual posts to the site!). I was worried that if I threw that in too, no one would read it.

I agree with you that it is an important angle to this case - and it's one I just planned to cover a little more fully next week rather than just adding to the end of this one. This week's post was about how it's still doubtful to me whether or not it was a hate crime but was certainly the "gay panic" defense. I wanted to stress why I thought we were barking up the wrong tree to accomplish something legislatively. You point is a very strong one though and I actually support it. But it's just for next week. :)