So Michael Griffin was convicted this week of murdering Don Belton. Griffin never denied killing Belton, which made for a speedy trial: All that was left was deciding whether the act was one of self-defense, manslaughter, or outright murder.
Griffin’s defense was that Don Belton had sexually assaulted him, twice, and then refused to admit to the rapes or apologize when Griffin confronted him a few days later. Griffin’s lawyer tried to convince the jury that his client pulled out the knife to protect himself during that confrontation, and that the stabbings were the result of Griffin acting out of fear and emotional pain.
The jury went with murder.
This case is about homophobia, masculinity, sexuality, and cultural norms about violence. It is to our great credit that the public discourse around this case neither shies from nor tries to sanitize these elements. Even the very first reports, as cautiously worded as they were, made it clear that sex was involved somehow. (See this article, typical of the language and details included in initial reports.) In what can only be viewed as a sea change in how we think about and represent gay men, most opinion pieces sided firmly against Griffin, dismissing Griffin’s “gay panic” defense as completely untenable. Here’s one representative example: Scott McLemee in Inside Higher Ed days after Belton’s death, analyzing the language of the affidavit and going on to speculate on the role “gay panic” would likely play in the trial:
According to a detective’s affidavit available online, he said that Belton had sexually assaulted him on Christmas. Two days later, he went to Belton’s apartment to have a “conversation” which turned into a “scuffle,” resulting in the professor’s death.
These words, which sound so mild, sit oddly in the narrative. The affidavit then goes on to say that Griffin stated “that he took a knife, called a ‘Peace Keeper’ that he had purchased prior to going to Iraq while in the Marine Corps, with him….” He also thought to bring a change of clothes. The bloody ones went into a white trash bag. Griffin “then went about and ran several errands,” the report continues, “before he eventually discarded the bloody clothing into a dumpster…. Mr. Griffin then returned home where he stated that he yold his girlfriend what he had done.”…
It is easy to speculate about what may have happened. In fact we do not know. But the circumstances track with a familiar pattern — one common enough to have a name: “the ‘gay panic’ defense.” This rests on the idea that the wave of disgust created in a heterosexual person at exposure to gay sexuality can create a state of temporary psychosis. The panic-stricken victim loses responsibility for his (for some reason, it always turns out to be “his”) actions.
This is an idea that should be retired to the Museum of Deranged Rationalization as soon as possible. But it seems far-fetched to imagine that Griffin and his counsel will get through trial without invoking it.
Cool. We’ve moved past the cultural setpoint that assumes that gay men are perverted sex fiends. Which is fantastic. Really, really fantastic And we’re moving past the era when “gay panic” would have been seen as a viable defense. (See Joseph Mitchell Parsons, 1987; Jonathan Schmitz, 1995; Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, 1998; Joseph Biedermann, 2008; Vincent McGee, 2010.)
But–and here’s where it gets tricky–we’re not yet past the era of blaming the accuser in sexual assault cases. Take a look at these tidbits:
Scott McLemee explains that rape is not plausible since Michael Griffin was younger and stronger than Don Belton, thereby invoking the “if she didn’t fight back, it wasn’t rape” position: “Belton was 53 years old while the man charged in his death is 25. The idea that he could violate an ex-Marine (and not once but twice, according to his statement to the police during interrogation) would be funny if it were not so grotesque.”
Over at Ambling Along the Aqueduct, a writer named Josh (possibly Josh Lukin? not sure.) starts with the “if she didn’t fight back, it wasn’t rape” argument and builds in a “she didn’t call the police, so it wasn’t rape” defense and tosses in an “I know this man and he would never have done that” defense for good measure:
most (commenters responding to this issue online) suggest, credibly, that an itty-bitty professor who could not lift heavy objects probably did not assault the young veteran, and that if the guy believed at the time that he had been assaulted, he would have called the police or, if shame and pride prevented that, done violence to Don right then and there. Friends’ reports of the fact that Don hated being around boozers also help to challenge the rumor that the assault occurred when Griffin was incapacitated by heavy drink.
And from the comments section of the Bloomington Herald-Times, in the days immediately following Belton’s death:
I’m thinking that if I were attacked once and didn’t like it, I don’t think I’d allow it to happen a second time. There are plenty of options. The easiest and most effective would be to not go near the person who attacked me the first time. Get in the car, drive to another location maybe?
If you pet a dog, and the dog bites you, do you try and pet it a second time? I don’t. (Wednesday, December 30, 2009: 7:30 am)
Here is a theory, in light of Belton’s journal entry about “a wonderful individual who has come into my life named Michael”)… A young, macho, ex-Marine experiences sexual attraction to another man and it leaves him feeling anxious, ashamed, angry and ultimately, tragically, homicidal. (Wednesday, December 30, 2009: 8:16 am)
I did not know this professor nor do I need to know him to conclude an opinion on this matter but what I do know is this…in my short 29 years on this earth I have come to learn that it really does not matter what this man’s race is or that his smile does not look like your’s or mine or that he was an openly gay man or not! What does matter is this….He was MURDERED!!!….This was an accomplished man, a man who used his time to read and write and not only educate himself but also others. He wasn’t a bum, he didn’t stand on the side of the road asking for a handout and he certainly did not deserve to be murdered!!! (Wednesday, December 30, 2009: 8:43 am)
Why did the girlfriend leave town? If she witnessed the event and it was rape, why did they not report it? They were coherent enough to remember, but not sober enough to fight off his attacker? Something does not add up. Other than the accused, everyone who knew Professor Belton seemed to find him a gentle, caring man. It is very hard to believe they were all so wrong about him. (Wednesday, December 30, 2009: 11:54 pm)
and here’s one in the gap between the trial and Michael Griffin’s conviction:
Just to clarify: no rape was ever reported to the police, nor was there any physical or medical evidence that a rape occurred. The defendant never reported such a crime, nor die he ask to be examined. We have only the defendant’s word that the sex he engaged in was non-consensual, and, now according to his testimony (which differs from the statements he gave to police), his recollection is so fuzzy, his girlfriend had to tell him something happened. In any case, the very next day, following what he is now describing as a sexual assault, the defendant and his girlfriend made love 5 times, while “processing” the events of the night before. There are so many contradictions in this sad story that it does break your heart. But Don Belton is the victim here, and cannot speak to defend his reputation. This is why those who knew him well came to testify to his nonviolent character. That is his “reputation.” In this country, it’s very simple. We don’t take the law into our own hands. While Michael Griffin deserves our pity for his troubled nature, he is not above the law. (Thursday, April 14, 2011: 1:04 pm)
Though here’s a nice, even-handed analysis from someone by the username of Gonzo:
[T]hose who argue that due to the size of Griffin he COULD not have been raped by the smaller man are engaging in a double standard as well. I would LOVE to hear one of them argue that a smaller man could not rape a woman who weighed 50 or 60 pounds more than them. That is saying that a woman has to forcefully resist a man’s advances with every possible amount of strength and any weapon at hand or it’s not rape. That’ thankfully, is NOT the law.
I believe that a woman had a right to say NO at any point and that once that is said further sexual action constitutes rape. Griffin, according to testimony anyway, rebuffed Belton three times. In Indiana physically pushing away or moving away from someone making sexual advances IS considered the same as saying “No” out loud.
Furthermore, saying a “6 foot tall 220 pound Marine” conjures up a significantly different image than what you get from seeing Griffin speak in person, as I saw yesterday.
Mr. Griffin killed Mr. Belton. He gave convincing and emotional testimony yesterday that his actions weren’t premeditated but that’s up to the jury , and that’s always a toss up. (Thursday, April 14, 2011: 3:12 pm)
Gonzo further writes:
I also feel Belton SHOULD be alive, there is no doubt in my mind that Griffin SHOULD (and will) go to prison. I also understand the concept that it is unfair that Belton can’t defend himself against allegations of rape.
But I am concerned there is a serious double standard at play though that does not alleviate the responsibility of Griffin for this homicide whether it is murder or manslaughter.
The double standard I see is this: If Belton as a 50 some year old man had befriended a woman in her mid-twenties who had serious emotional issues and events had unfolded in the same way, the woman in question would have the sympathy of a lot more people than Griffin does.
I do not know if it was murder or manslaughter. I do NOT believe that the rape, if it occurred, justified homicide in any way. All I can say is that what I was able to see of the trial was mostly Griffin’s testimony and all the folks on here saying he’s an evil manipulative bad ass seem to be talking about someone else than the person 50 or so people, including the jury, saw testify.
So, my bottom line is this; these events and this trial, no matter what the outcome, will not result in any form of ‘justice.’ Those on here crowing about Griffin’s innocence because he ‘was raped’ are doing so because of their prejudices for certain, but a lot of people have decided they know what happened and they don’t really have a clue, they are basing their judgments on their own preconceived notions as well. (Thursday, April 14, 2011: 10:25 pm)
Really, I couldn’t have said it better myself. So I won’t bother to try.
I will only add that this case, and the public discourse surrounding it, has left me feeling deeply conflicted and uneasy. As a queer feminist lady-type, as a social liberal, as a human being who cares about human beings, I’m sad and disappointed and dismayed by how easily members of “my” communities have slipped into the friend/enemy rhetoric that works against “us” far more frequently than it works in “our” favor.