Photograph courtesy of the Seymour Tribune

Garrett Gray, front, and Coleman King, behind, have been given plea agreements that will require them to serve 15 years in prison for savagely beating a Crothersville man to death last April. The youths put forward a "gay panic defense," saying they beat Aaron "Shorty" Hall after he made a homosexual advance toward King.

The two Crothersville youths who claim they savagely beat a 32-year-old man to death last April over an alleged homosexual advance will be free in less than 15 years.

On Jan. 15, Jackson County Circuit Judge Bill Vance accepted a plea agreement from 18-year-old Coleman King that called for a 30-year sentence. In Indiana, that means King would serve 15 years, with credit for the time he has already served since his arrest last April.

Twenty-year-old Garrett Gray accepted the same deal on Jan. 8. Vance has scheduled his sentencing for Jan. 30.

The case, initially ignored by the state's corporate media and wire services, drew widespread attention in independent and Internet media nationwide after the pair said they beat Aaron "Shorty" Hall to death for suggesting a homosexual act with King. This argument is known in legal circles as the "gay panic defense" and suggests that temporary insanity in response to a homosexual advance can justify murder.

The Crothersville Times reported at the time of the arrests: "King said they were all drinking beer and whiskey when Hall grabbed him in the groin, asking King to perform oral sex. King said he punched Hall, then jumped on him, punching him several more times. King said Gray also punched Hall while King held Hall down."

In graphic detail, King, Hall and others told police last spring that they had been partying at Gray's father's home on April 12 when the altercation with the 5-foot-4-inch Hall began. They admitted to hitting him with their fists; dragging him down a wooden staircase from the home's deck, his head "bouncing" on each step; and beating him some more in the back of a pickup truck before tossing his body into a ditch along a deserted farm lane.

According to court documents, King hit Hall in the head about 75 times and, at one point, took off his cowboy boot and beat Hall with it.

Hall crawled out of the ditch later that night or early the next morning and died in an adjacent cornfield. Gray, King and 21-year-old James Hendricks later retrieved the body, wrapped it in a tarp and stashed it in Gray's detached garage.

Acting on a tip, police discovered Hall's body on April 22 and arrested Gray, King and Hendricks.

***

King and Gray were charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter as a class B felony. Under each man's plea deal, both charges were dropped, and they pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter with a deadly weapon, a class A felony. The weapon was King's boot.

Hendricks is awaiting trial on a charge of assisting a criminal.

Under Indiana law, King and Hall could have been sentenced to 50 years in prison. And the sentence, accepted by Jackson County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Amy Marie Travis, has drawn criticism.

Several commenters on the Seymour Tribune Web site railed against the agreement after it was announced on Dec. 17.

One commented on King's violent past: "King and his cronies beat a friend of mine one night over nothing. They beat on him til he blacked out. They beat him so badly it put him in the hospital yet they only get a talking to from the cops. I knew then, it was only a matter of time before they killed someone. Evil. pure and simple."

Others directed their anger at the prosecutor: "To the prosecuter in this case, what the hell are you thinkin, he murdered this person. idiots."

"This is just amazing," another wrote. "I am sure glad our prosecutor is willing to let everyone off on a plea deal and be back into the community in 10 years."

***

Among the many angles to the story was the lack of coverage by major media, such as
The Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal and AP wire service. While the Star published more than a dozens stories on the 2005 sexual assault and murder of a 10-year-old Crothersville girl, it's first story on Shorty Hall's murder came in August, four months after the fact.

Star reporter Jon Murray, who wrote the story, explained the dearth of coverage in an August e-mail to the Bloomington Alternative: "The killing took place in far southern Indiana, well outside our primary coverage area (Indianapolis and surrounding counties). We cover very few stories outside that area, and often we rely on wire reports. Sometimes reporters get sent, but probably not as often as they did in the past. And that leads me to resources -- the Star, like a lot of newspapers, doesn't have many reporters to spare most days, so that's why we're focusing on Indy-area coverage almost exclusively."

The Star covered King's December plea agreement.

***

The murder occurred at the same time that a hate crimes bill was pending, and failing again, in the Indiana General Assembly. Hate crimes bills enhance sentencing options when crimes are motivated by gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age and other social factors.

"Some gay-rights activists followed the case closely, saying sexual taunts referenced in the probable cause affidavit meant Hall was killed because the men thought he was gay," the Star wrote after King entered his plea. "But Detective Robert Henley has said the case wasn't investigated as a hate crime."

When he entered his guilty plea last week, King reiterated the gay-panic argument, telling the judge that Hall had angered him by grabbing his crotch.

Advance Indiana, a blog authored by hate-crimes-bill advocate Gary Welsh, did the bulk of the initial reporting on the Hall murder. He and others drew parallels to the 1998 gay-panic Matthew Shepard murder in Wyoming. That case spawned a flurry of hate crimes legislation in states across the country.

In his blog, Welsh refers to King and Gray's sentences as "a huge black eye on the State of Indiana. The defendants in this case have been given a deal a Wyoming prosecutor and its courts wouldn't give to the killers of Matthew Shepard."

"All but five states have adopted hate crimes laws," he wrote. "Indiana and Wyoming are among the five states without a hate crimes law."

Hate crimes bills are pending in both the Indiana House and Senate this session.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.