By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
You don't know what to expect of an accused killer awaiting his verdict. Fear, maybe. Or anger. But on Nov. 18, when an Orange County jury found Gregory Michael Pisarcik guilty of torturing, killing and mutilating a gay man, the 28-year-old New Jersey native smirked and nodded, and then chuckled at his somber jurors. Outside the Santa Ana courtroom, the jurors, 11 women and a man, wept and consoled each other. A female juror nearly collapsed in the elevator; others openly worried about their safety. One of them described the gruesome case as "emotionally draining—the worst thing I've ever seen in my life." A juror asked me, "Why was [Pisarcik] laughing?"
Perhaps because the ruse was over. Pisarcik no longer needed to pose as a part-time lover of sodomy, older men, fashion and his mother's underwear, as a victim of a childhood fall, a brutal father and an uncaring society. During the three-week trial, senior Deputy DA Matt Murphy revealed the real Pisarcik, a penniless drifter, thug and thief with a $120-a-day methamphetamine habit who murdered Narciso P. Leggs Jr. during a June 2002 robbery.
Until recently, killing gay men was easily defensible. In 1996, in my first story for the Weekly, I reported on the case of Scott Andrew Stockwell, a man who killed Boyd Finkel, a successful gay Irvine businessman. Stockwell admitted that he killed Finkel with a hammer, stole his property and fled to Wisconsin, but claimed self-defense: though he slept with Finkel for three nights before the killing, he told jurors he was violently outraged by gay sex. His jurors sympathized. They found him guilty on a lesser charge of manslaughter—even though blood spatter evidence proved Finkel had been attacked from behind while he read the Sunday comics. Two months after the trial, Stockwell walked out of the Orange County Jail a free man.
Stockwell's case hearkened back to the archetype, the 1978 trial of Dan White. A former cop and fireman, White, a conservative, resigned his post on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, returned to City Hall with a gun, and killed two of the board's most liberal members, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a gay man. White's defense team admitted he'd killed the men but blamed it on depression triggered by a bad diet. Twinkies plus stress and the presence of an openly gay man were the lethal combination that killed Moscone and Milk, the defense argued. The judge and jury bought it: White was convicted not of first-degree murder but on a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Similarly hoping to win a manslaughter conviction, public defender Bill Kelley deployed his own Twinkie defense on Pisarcik's behalf. He asked the jury to focus not on "who" but "why." He said Pisarcik suffered from depression, "borderline retardation," drug addictions, and a series of personality disorders from alleged childhood injuries and abuse. In one memorable scene, he called to the witness stand Pisarcik's 24-year-old sister, Kimberly. She sobbed when she testified that her father beat her brother "every day" as a child. In the midst of her gut-wrenching testimony, the lawyers conducted a sidebar meeting with Superior Court Judge Frank Fasel. Still on the witness stand, Kimberly Pisarcik stopped crying, winked at her brother and playfully stuck out her tongue. The killer—who, according to Kimberly's testimony, had molested her for at least two years beginning when she was 10 years old—giggled.
Kelley also insisted that his client—a well-muscled man about 6 feet tall and in his physical prime—had a long history of being victimized by kinky, older gay men. The defense lawyer hired two psychologists to argue that his client struggled with his sexual identity.
All of this, he said, led to the fateful day three years ago when Pisarcik met the 55-year-old Leggs in a Laguna Beach gay bar and went home with him for pleasure. There, Kelley asserted, "something" snapped.
The implication was clear: Pisarcik had had a sudden, intense revulsion to gay sex, an assertion the defense lawyer hoped would win juror sympathy.
"This was an unpremeditated explosion of rage and an eruption of [Pisarcik's] history that resulted in that ritualistic killing," said Kelley, who represented serial killer Charles Ng in the early 1990s. On the courtroom televisions, he displayed a crime-scene photo of Leggs' hog-tied, mutilated corpse, with "FAGS DIE" written on his back in black marker and a large Ray-O-Vac flashlight shoved deep into the man's bloody rectum—and then blamed Pisarcik's personal issues.
"Come on! We're talking about demons," Kelley told the jury. "Those demons came out that night."
In the end, of course, the jurors didn't buy it. Some were particularly sensitive about Kelley's success in stacking the jury with women—in the apparent hope that they would favor his client over a dead gay man.
"To assume that 11 women would have sympathy for [Pisarcik] over using their intellect is insulting to me," one member of the panel told me. "We don't live in the 1800s. The women of today are capable of putting aside their emotions to make the right decisions."
Indeed, the jury took less than a day to reject the demon defense. They convicted Pisarcik of first-degree murder with two special circumstances—murder in the commission of a robbery and sexual penetration of a foreign object. Because the judge is likely to send Pisarcik to prison for life without parole, it's an unnecessary bonus, but perhaps it's a sign of how far we've come that the jurors also declared the killing a hate crime. Fasel will determine punishment at a Feb. 3 hearing.