Rare Bias Indictment in Sakia Gunn Murder

Richard McCullough faces six charges, one saying he killed NJ teen because she was lesbian

Richard McCullough, 29, has been in custody since his surrender on May 15, following a police manhunt after the attack.

Sakia Gunn, 15, and four other young lesbians were waiting for a bus early on the morning of May 11 at the corner of Broad and Market Streets after an evening in New York City at a park along the Hudson River that is a popular gathering place for gay and lesbian youth on the weekends.

Despite the murder’s early designation as a hate crime, the indictment on November 21 came after what prosecutors have described as a lengthy investigation.

A spokesperson in the Essex County prosecutor’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that New Jersey law does not mandate a period of time in which a prosecutor must seek an indictment. According to the spokesperson, six months is not an unusually long period of time before a defendant is indicted.

The New Jersey State Police compile annual statistics on crime data for each of the statewide. According to the 2002 report, there were no bias-related murders in New Jersey that year.

In fact, there were no bias-related murders going back to 1998. Bias categories include race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or handicap.

Of the 625 bias incident offenses in 2002, 354 incidents involved people as targets, as opposed to, for example, houses of worship or private property. Of that total, 28 victims were gay or lesbian and two were bisexual in incidents ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault. There was no separate listing for transgendered individuals.

The prosecution of McCullough, then, on charges of bias intimidation in the first degree is a rare occurrence in New Jersey.

Currently he is being held in Essex County Detention Center on $500,000 bail.Gunn’s death led to two large public protests, with activists demanding that the city be more responsive to the needs of the gay and lesbian community. There were 2,500 mourners at the young woman’s funeral.

“I don’t think anybody is going to be satisfied with the 118 years they are talking about,” said Thelma Gunn, Sakia’s grandmother, referring to published accounts stating the prison term a conviction might get McCullough. At the time of the young woman’s death, Thelma had legal custody of the girl. Following word of the stabbing, Thelma was rushed to the emergency room at University Hospital with heart arrhythmia where Sakia lay dead.

“If he does get out,” Thelma said, “he won’t last long on the street with the people looking to get him.”

Thelma also said that some members of her family were disappointed that McCullough was not being charged under the state’s death penalty statute.

McCullough was not in court when his attorney, John McMahon, entered a not guilt plea to the six charges which include murder, aggravated assault, weapons offenses and “murder with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group because of sexual orientation.”

Among the charges, McCullough is accused of choking one of the young lesbians during the verbal confrontation and scuffle that ensued when he and another male pulled up in station wagon and made sexual innuendoes to the girls. During the confrontation, Sakia identified herself as a lesbian and also went to the aid of the friend who was being choked.

In the week after the killing, police acknowledged they had apprehended a suspect and were questioning him. The next day, that man was released. His name has never been made public.

When asked if the first male is cooperating with the prosecution, the spokesperson in the prosecutor’s office said, “I cannot comment on that.”

New Jersey’s bias law stipulates that the crime itself and the bias charge must be considered separately during sentencing if McCullough is convicted of both charges. Considering the dearth of bias cases that have been put before juries, it is unknown how a judge would sentence McCullough should he be found guilty of murdering Sakia out of bias towards homosexuals. The statute provides a 15 to 30-year enhancement on a mandatory sentence of 30 years for murder.

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