NY Times Blog: Film Examines a Newark Hate Crime

February 18, 2009, 9:30 AM

Film Examines a Newark Hate Crime

Sakia GunnA documentary recounts the 2003 killing of Sakia Gunn, 15, a lesbian high school student in Newark.

In 2003, Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian high school student, was fatally stabbed in downtown Newark by a man who had approached her in the street and made sexual advances to her and her friends, which they declined.

The case, which was prosecuted as a hate crime, drew widespread attention in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, though considerably less news coverage than that of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student who was abducted, beaten, tied to a pole and left to freeze to death in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.

A documentary released last year, “Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project,” offers an emotional examination of the Gunn case. The filmmaker, Charles B. Brack, obtained permission to record the trial of Richard McCullough, the girl’s killer. His was the only camera in the courtroom — a fact that, at a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday evening, Mr. Brack called “disgraceful.”

(The Times covered the killing of Ms. Gunn, along with the arrest andindictment of Mr. McCullough. A follow-up article a year after the killing examined the growing awareness of the plight of gay minority teenagers in cities, and in 2007 The Times examined the relative isolation and invisibilityof Newark’s gays.)

The film weaves trial footage with interviews; one of the earliest scenes depicts Mr. McCullough’s defense lawyer citing his relatively thin criminal history — a juvenile conviction for possession of marijuana — as a mitigating factor for the purposes of sentencing.

Some of the film’s most wrenching scenes are of Valencia Bailey, Ms. Gunn’s best friend, in whose car Ms. Gunn bled to death on their way to a hospital; of Anthony Hall, a cousin of the victim, who described her as an A student who enjoyed playing basketball and did not cause her family any trouble; and of Latona Gunn, Ms. Gunn’s mother, who tells Mr. McCullough in the courtroom, “Your rage has caused me 23 months of sleepless nights.”

Thelma Gunn, the victim’s grandmother, says of Ms. Gunn and her friends: “All they wanted was to go home and get in their beds. Her bed turned out to be a coffin.”

Ms. Gunn’s death had a galvanizing effect on gay activists, and the film includes interviews with several: Laquetta Nelson, co-founder of the Newark Pride Alliance; Clarence Patton of the New York City Anti-Violence Project; and Bran Fenner of Fierce, a coalition of gay minority young people.

vigil for Sakia GunnMonika Graff for The New York TimesShanese Winston, 17, left, and Audrey Servance, 17, attended a vigil for their friend Sakia Gunn as officials observed a No Name-Calling Day on May 11, 2004, a year after Ms. Gunn was killed.

A candlelight vigil held in Newark a year after the killing, in which dozens of community members gathered at the corner of Broad and Market Streets, where the crime occurred, highlighted the extent to which the gay population mobilized after the slaying — and sought the support of straight allies. At the vigil, Cory A. Booker, then a councilman and now the mayor of Newark, angrily asked why “there was not a national outcry” over the crime.

As part of a plea agreement, Judge Paul J. Vichness of Essex County Superior Court sentenced Mr. McCullough in 2005 to 20 years in prison for aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault and bias intimidation — less than the maximum penalty of 25 years. The judge said he considered Mr. McCullough’s lack of a previous criminal record a mitigating factor, but rejected the defense’s arguments that the circumstances leading up to the crime were unlikely to recur and that Mr. McCullough was unlikely to commit a crime again.

The defense had initially argued that Ms. Gunn fell on Mr. McCullough’s knife during or after a scuffle, a version of events that prosecutors and Ms. Gunn’s friends disputed.

“I don’t know why you didn’t walk away from this,” the judge told Mr. McCullough.

Mr. Brack, who grew up in Chicago and manages operations at Third World Newsreel, an activist filmmaker collective founded in 1967, said he hoped the film would raise awareness about Ms. Gunn and her life and death.

“It’s about access,” he said when asked why the case had received less attention than that of Matthew Shepard. “Lack of access to the media.”


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