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Beyond Homophobia » Overkill in Alabama: All the Rage

September 13, 2007

Overkill in Alabama: All the Rage

Posted at 5:58 pm (Pacific Time)

The last two of Scotty Joe Weaver’s murderers have pleaded guilty.

Weaver was a popular 18-year old gay man in the southern Alabama town of Bay Minette, as recounted in the independent documentary film Small Town Gay Bar. Members of the local gay community reacted with shock when his charred body was found several miles from his 2-bedroom trailer home.

On July 18, 2004, Weaver had been beaten, cut, and strangled to death in his trailer. Some accounts reported he was nearly decapitated. The murderers were his roommates, Christopher Gaines and Nichole Bryars Kelsay, and Gaines’ friend, Robert Porter.

According to the Baldwin County District Attorney, “Weaver and Porter never got along because Porter had problems with Weaver’s homosexuality….” An entry in Porter’s court file noted that “Porter was asked if his participation in the murder was because Weaver was gay,” to which Porter replied in the affirmative.

After the killing, the three murderers drove around town while discussing how to dispose of Weaver’s body. They eventually took it to a remote trail off a country road, placed it face up on a blanket, urinated on it, and then set it afire. The body wasn’t discovered for four days.

Weaver’s murder evoked a sense of deja vu in Alabama where, five years earlier in Sylacauga, 39-year old Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in a crime that bore many resemblances to Weaver’s killing. On February 19, 1999, Gaither was kidnapped, his throat was cut, and he was beaten to death. His body was thrown on a pile of tires and set afire. Two men were eventually arrested: Steve Mullins pleaded guilty to capital murder and Charles Monroe Butler was found guilty by a jury. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

One week ago, on September 6, Robert Porter pleaded guilty to killing Scotty Joe Weaver and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. Today, in a plea bargain, Kelsay pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Gaines pleaded guilty to capital murder last May and was sentenced to life in prison without chance for parole.

Overkill in Antigay Murders

The brutality that characterized the murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver isn’t unusual in killings of sexual minority victims. In a 1980 research paper, sociologists Brian Miller and Laud Humphreys reported findings from their study of 52 antigay murders whose descriptions they found through archival sources. The researchers noted the “gruesome, often vicious nature” of the crimes, which were considerably more likely to involve stabbing, compared to murders in the United States as a whole, and which frequently showed evidence of overkill — wounding far beyond what would be required to cause a victim’s death.

Miller and Humphreys noted,

“Seldom is a homosexual victim simply shot. He is more apt to be stabbed a dozen or more times, mutilated, and strangled. In a number of instances, the victim was stabbed or mutilated even after being fatally shot.”

Corroboration for this observation comes from another study. Michael Bell and Raul Vila, two Florida forensic pathologists, compared the autopsy reports of 67 male homosexual and bisexual homicide victims with those of 195 randomly selected male heterosexual victims. Each victim’s sexual orientation was determined by police reports. The two groups were matched for age and race.

Consistent with the Miller and Humphreys study, the researchers found:

  • The homicides of homosexual and bisexual men were objectively more violent than murders of heterosexuals.
  • Stabbing and other sharp-force injuries were the most common cause of death among the homosexual and bisexual victims, whereas gunshot wounds were the most common for the heterosexual victims.
  • The bodies of homosexual victims, on average, evidenced more injuries from blunt weapons, more fatal stab wounds, and injuries to more areas of the body than the heterosexual victims.
  • Homosexual and bisexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to have injuries in the face, head, neck, back, arms, and legs.
  • The percentage of cases with multiple causes of death – overkill – was greater among the homosexual and bisexual victims, although the difference was not statistically significant.

Why Overkill?

There are probably many explanations for the high levels of violence that often characterize antigay attacks. For example, overkill and related forms of brutality may indicate the extent to which sexual minorities are dehumanized in the minds of perpetrators. When attackers regard their victims as less than human, they’re unlikely to feel any inhibition about brutalizing them. Such denigration can ultimately be traced to the stigma that is attached to homosexuality in our culture.

The phenomenon of overkill also suggests that many perpetrators of antigay crimes experience extraordinarily high levels of emotion during the attack, which is expressed through extreme violence.

Research by Dr. Dominic Parrott, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, provides some insights about these emotions. He conducted a series of laboratory studies that examined the linkages among anger, sexual prejudice, and antigay aggression.

In one study, heterosexual male college students watched a sexually explicit video — half were randomly assigned to a video of two men in a sexual situation, whereas the other half watched a heterosexual couple. The participants’ levels of anger were measured before and after they viewed the video. Among the men who watched the male-male video, increased feelings of anger were strongly associated with high scores on a measure of sexual prejudice (which had been administered earlier). For men who watched the heterosexual video, the correlation was near zero.

Next, each man participated in a competitive task with a male opponent, which included opportunities for the winner of each round to administer minor electric shocks to the loser. Half were led to believe their opponent was gay. Dr. Parrott detected a strong relationship between the intensity of shocks administered and levels of sexual prejudice, but only among the men who both watched male-male erotica and then competed against a (presumably) gay male opponent. Similarly, the intensity of shocks was correlated with levels of anger only in that group.

Thus, among men who were exposed to male-male sexuality and placed in a situation where they could aggress against a gay man, levels of sexual prejudice and anger were strongly associated with levels of aggression. This association was absent among men who were exposed to heterosexual sexuality or who believed they were competing against a heterosexual opponent.

In a separate, complementary study, Dr. Parrott and his colleagues found that the link between sexual prejudice and anger derives from straight men’s experience of negative emotions in connection with exposure to male homosexuality. In that study, once again, feelings of anger were strongly associated with sexual prejudice among men who viewed a male-male erotic video, but not among those who saw a heterosexual video. Moreover, watching a male-male video caused highly prejudiced heterosexual men to feel high levels of anxiety which, in turn, triggered their feelings of anger. Thus, Dr. Parrott concluded that increases in anxiety and related negative emotions following exposure to male-male sexuality may be a catalyst for heightened anger among prejudiced heterosexual men. If such men subsequently encounter a gay man, that anger can lead to aggression.

Generalizing from Dr. Parrott’s findings, we can speculate about the psychological underpinnings of antigay violence outside the laboratory. In some cases, perhaps prejudiced heterosexual men experience extremely negative feelings (including anxiety) as a result of simply being around a man they believe is gay. Perhaps those feelings are even more intense if the situation makes the gay man’s sexuality salient (or maybe some heterosexuals always perceive gay men mainly in sexual terms). Those feelings might cause prejudiced straight men to interpret the situation in ways that foster an increase in anger — even to the point of feeling rage. Given the right circumstances (including, perhaps, the disinhibiting effects of drugs or alcohol), they might express that rage through extremely violent acts against the gay man — perhaps even overkill.

This account leaves several questions unanswered. For example, why do some heterosexual men experience such strongly negative feelings around gay men whereas others don’t? What about other types of violence, such as straight men’s attacks on lesbians? And what about violence that results from factors other than prejudice, such as peer pressure or the perpetrator’s need to assert his masculinity?

I’ll address some of these puzzles in a future posting.

A Footnote

The murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver weren’t included in FBI annual hate crime reports. Like a dozen other states, Alabama doesn’t count antigay murders or other crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation under its hate crime statute.

# # # # #

Brian Miller & Laud Humphreys’ study, “Lifestyles and violence: Homosexual victims of assault and murder,” was published in 1980 in Qualitative Sociology (vol. 3, pp. 169-185).

Michael D. Bell & Raul I. Vila’s study, “Homicide in homosexual victims: A study of 67 cases from the Broward County, Florida, Medical Examiner’s office (1982-1992), with special emphasis on ‘overkill,’ ” was published in 1996 in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology (vol. 17, #1, pp. 65-69).

The studies by Dominic Parrott and his colleagues were published in 2006 in Aggressive Behavior (”Sexual prejudice and anger network activation: Mediating role of negative affect,” vol. 32, pp. 7-16) and in 2005 in Psychology of Men and Masculinity (”Effects of sexual prejudice and anger on physical aggression toward gay and heterosexual men,” vol. 6, pp. 3-17).

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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