Copyright (c) 2008 Law & Sexuality
Law & Sexuality: A Review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Legal Issues
ARTICLE: The Geronimo Bank Murders: A Gay Tragedy
Law & Sexuality: A Review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Legal Issues*
17 Law & Sex. 39
Joan W. Howarth*
Jay Wesley Neill was executed on December 12, 2002, for murdering four people in a gruesome Geronimo, Oklahoma bank robbery on December 16, 1984, and for being gay. 1 At trial, in the closing argument for death, the prosecutor told the jurors that Neill's identity as a homosexual was a reason to return a death verdict. 2 Later that afternoon they did. 3 A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit determined that the prosecutor's words were error, but not prejudicial. 4 By what analysis is such an argument error? In what world is such an error harmless?
Neill's terrible story calls out for a critical cultural, legal, and political reading. Neill's case reveals the power of law to construct and condemn homosexual identity. Constitutional death penalty doctrine requires capital jurors to choose life or death by judging the defendant's character. 5 This inquiry makes cases of gay capital defendants potentially powerful sites of contested meanings of gay identity, 6 and rich cultural artifacts about homosexuality. 7 Sentencing a person to death because of moral distaste for homosexuality is itself morally reprehensible, but current capital doctrine permits and perhaps even encourages such results. The Tenth Circuit's treatment of the prosecutor's arguments about homosexuality lays bare the faulty formalism that underlies harmless error review of death verdicts. Neill's crimes and punishment also challenge and disrupt the valorizing tendencies of the identity-based gay rights movement. What if Neill's gay identity ...
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