QUEER CRIME: 5 Times Sexuality Played a Role in Wrongful Conviction

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Imagine being convicted of a crime you didn’t commit on nothing more than a stereotype…

By Courtney Hardwick
Photo by David von Diemar/Unsplash

If you’re a true crime fan, you know there’s no shortage of books, documentaries, podcasts, and original reports about the victims of violent crime and the people who commit those crimes. At the same time, we know that the cases that get the most attention tend to be those against white, middle-class, and cisgender people. From serial killers like Ted Bundy, the Golden State Killer and Paul Bernardo to victims of the most talked about unsolved cases like JonBenet Ramsey, the media is busy covering a certain (very small) selection of cases. Meanwhile, hate crimes, including murders of gay, trans and non-binary people, are on the rise. Homosexual crime is a monthly column focusing on true crimes with an LGBTQ+ twist, whether it’s the victim or the perpetrator.

This month, we look at five criminal cases based on little more than the perceived “deviant lifestyles” of LGBT defendants. According to a 2017 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, lesbians, gays and bisexuals are three times more likely to be incarcerated than their heterosexual counterparts. While the reasons for this are complicated, one factor is that LGBT people face stereotypes that portray them as inherently more violent simply because of their sexuality. Not surprisingly, this has led the justice system to convict innocent people. Here are five cases of people wrongfully convicted of a crime they might never even have been charged with if they weren’t gay.

Bernard Baron
In the 1980s and 1990s, a phenomenon known as the “child care sexual abuse hysteria” swept across the United States. There have been numerous cases of child care workers being accused, most wrongly, of sexually abusing children in their care. In 1985, teaching assistant Bernard Baran, openly gay and only 19 years old, was the victim of a false accusation that spiraled out of control. After discovering that Baran was gay, the parents of one of the children in his class complained to the school board, saying they “didn’t want any gay people” to take care of their son. When Baran was not fired, the parents – who were also drug addicts – took matters into their own hands and turned themselves in to the police claiming that Baran had assaulted their son. The daycare then notified other parents, which led to five more allegations.

Baran was charged with three counts of rape and five counts of indecent assault. During the trial, the prosecutor called Baran a “choco in a candy store”, implying that a gay man surrounded by children was too hard to resist. Baran refused to plead guilty or agree to a deal, and after a week-long trial that involved testimony from children under five and no real evidence, he was found guilty and sentenced three times to the life imprisonment. It was not until 2006 that Baran was finally granted a new trial and in 2009 when the original charges were dismissed. The podcast Mass Exoneration covers Baran’s case in detail from the initial charges to the way the investigation and trial were mishandled.

Michael Castillo
In 1988, Rene Chinea, a 50-year-old gay Cuban immigrant, was murdered and dismembered. Police focused on his neighbor, Miguel Castillo, 36, based on a tip from another suspect in the crime. Castillo maintained his innocence but was charged anyway after detectives claimed he confessed to the murder. According to Castillo, the police beat him during interrogation and when he still did not confess, they fabricated a story that confirmed their own assumptions. Police claimed that Castillo and the victim were in a relationship and Castillo committed murder after discovering that Chinea had cheated on him. The problem with the story was that Castillo was heterosexual and there was no evidence to suggest he was in a relationship with Chinea or that he was gay. Castillo was also already in jail on a burglary charge unrelated to when Chinea was murdered. Yet he was found guilty and sentenced to 48 years in prison.

Queer (In)Justice, a book about the queer experience in the criminal justice system explores Castillo’s case and claims that the biased belief that Chinea must have been murdered by a lover was “based on the premise that homosexuals who are lovers or roommates are “particularly violent” when they struggle. This stereotype shaped the investigation from the moment the police arrived on the scene. Castillo served more than 10 years in prison before being granted a new trial and an exoneration in 2001 with the help of The Innocence Project. Castillo sued the Chicago Police Department for charging him with the murder and walked away from a $1.2 million settlement.

Kerry Max Cook
Kerry Max Cook spent more than 20 years on death row for the 1977 rape and murder of Linda Jo Edwards. During her trial, prosecutors told jurors Cook attacked Edwards in “a fit of homosexual rage” fueled by a film he had watched which depicted the mutilation of a cat. Despite evidence that Edwards was murdered by an ex-lover, the police ignored anything that did not support their homophobic hypothesis and Cook was found guilty.

Cook was finally released in 1999 and he continued to fight for his exoneration until 2016 when his conviction was overturned. Cook believes he was targeted by police because of his sexuality and convicted because of a “gay witch hunt” by investigators who believed only a “deviant homosexual” could commit such a horrific crime. Cook had worked in gay nightclubs and lived with a gay acquaintance who lived in the same building in Edwards. After his release from prison, Cook wrote a book, In pursuit of justicedetailing the prosecution’s efforts to convict him.

San Antonio Four
Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez were just 19 and 20 when they were charged with the gang rape of Ramirez’s 7 and 9 year old nieces. All four women were openly gay, and by 1994 it was common for people to believe that gay people were prone to sexually abusing young children. Between widespread homophobia and satanic panic of the 80s and 90s, the four women were convicted without any physical evidence to support their guilt.

The documentary Southwest of Salem follows the women’s nearly 15 years behind bars and fight for their exoneration. They all refused to accept a plea deal and it was not until one of the alleged victims came forward in 2012 to admit she had lied that the four women finally managed to convince the court to take them. seriously. The alleged victim said her family members pressured her to make up the assault allegations because they were angry at Ramirez’s sexuality. The recanted story combined with a lack of forensic evidence ultimately exonerated all four women in 2016 after they had already served most of their sentences.

Bernina Mata
Bernina Mata was convicted of first degree murder in 1999 for killing John Draheim. Mata claimed self-defense saying that Draheim attacked her and attempted to rape her. The prosecution countered by claiming that Draheim made an innocent pass at Mata and that as a “man hater” and “hardcore lesbian” she became so enraged that she lashed out at him and murdered him. The prosecution claimed Mata’s sexuality was the motive for the murder and showed the jury books from his apartment…call me lesbian, Homosexualitiesand Best Lesbian Reading — to underscore their argument that her lesbianism led her to kill and that the crime was premeditated. The prosecution claimed that “a normal heterosexual person would not be offended by (the victim’s) conduct to the point of committing murder.” Mata was convicted and sentenced to death.

Although Mata killed John Draheim, the prosecution used his sexuality—something unrelated to the crime—to bias the jury. There was also a long list of circumstances that should have been raised in his defense, including his history of abuse, depression, mental illness and drug addiction. At the time of the murder, Mata was also not taking his antipsychotic medication and this information was not used in his defense. All of these factors should have prevented Mata from being convicted of first degree murder. Mata successfully applied for clemency in 2003 and his death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.

Learn more about Courtney Hardwick’s fascinating QUEER CRIME series Click here.

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