Sakia Gunn’s Killer Pleads Guilty

Reduced charge for Richard McCullough in N.J. hate crime means shorter prison term

On March 3, nearly two years after he stabbed a 15-year-old lesbian in the heart on a deserted Newark street corner, Richard McCullogh pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in a bias crime that galvanized the New Jersey city’s gay and lesbian community. The manslaughter charge is the result of a plea agreement that reduced the charges from second-degree murder.

McCullough, also pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and bias intimidation.

Those charges stem from his actions in the pre-dawn hours of May 11, 2003, when the defendant and another man, Allen Pierce, who has not been charged in the crime, approached Gunn and four other girls who waited for a bus after a night of socializing in Greenwich Village. After an exchange in which the young woman said they were lesbians and both men stepped out of the vehicle, McCullough stabbed the slight-framed Gunn in the chest. As the men raced away, Gunn’s companions hailed a passing motorist who sped them to nearby University Hospital, but in vain. Gunn’s massive loss of blood proved fatal.

McCullough’s statements in open court on March 3 nearly unraveled the plea deal when he said that Gunn died because she ran into his knife.

“I stood in a defensive stance with my knife in my hand, and she lunged at me,” McCullough said of the scuffle that ensued after he and Pierce, after a night of drinking, continued to harass the young women after they identified themselves as lesbians.

According to a report in the Newark Star-Ledger, Superior Court Judge Paul Vichness threatened to call a trial unless McCullough fully admitted his guilt. The defendant then said he was making slashing movements with the knife when it killed Gunn.

McCullough also admitted calling Gunn a “dyke” during the confrontation in which the high school basketball star rushed to the aid of a young woman that McCullough had grabbed by the throat.

In a telephone interview on March 9, the Essex County prosecutor, Thomas McTigue, said that he was “very comfortable” with the plea agreement, stating that he was fully prepared to go to trial and win a conviction before a jury. McTigue added that the plea agreement was finalized only after consulting with the Gunn family to ascertain their willingness to forgo a trial, in line with a longstanding practice, according to the prosecutor, of consulting with the families of murder victims before plea deals are finalized. McTigue said that at McCullough’s sentencing on April 21, the judge must take into account New Jersey’s No Early Release Act that mandates that “McCullough must serve 85 percent of his sentence,” a possible jail term of 17 years, which the prosecutor called “a very long time.”

Authorities designated the killing as a hate crime just as news of Gunn’s death spread throughout Newark, the state’s most populous city, and thousands of young gays, mostly lesbians, flocked to a makeshift shrine erected in her memory at the downtown intersection of Market and Broad Streets, Gunn’s blood still darkening patches of the sidewalk. Later that week, thousands of other young gays and lesbians attended Gunn’s funeral and angrily confronted Mayor Sharpe James when he arrived to pay his respects. The young people demanded that the city establish a gay youth outreach center and James promised to appoint a committee of city leaders, including prominent gay and lesbian figures, to study how best to found one so that gay and lesbian youth “don’t need to go to New York to be safe.”

The city never honored that commitment, a source of lingering resentment within Newark’s large gay and lesbian community.

McTigue said that Pierce, who until this stage of the prosecution remained unidentified, did not abet the crime and was prepared to be a witness for the state. “His actions were not admirable, but it was determined not to charge him,” said McTigue, who underscored that with McCullough’s sentencing still pending, the case is ongoing and the prosecutor’s office will still call upon Pierce if his testimony is needed in a trial.

Gunn’s cousin, Valencia Bailey, now a 17-year-old high school senior, was among the group of young lesbians on that fatal 2003 morning and witnessed the crime. Bailey held Gunn in her lap as the young woman’s life slipped away en route to the hospital.

In a telephone interview on March 9, Bailey said that she was prepared to testify for the prosecution. As for the reduction in charges against McCullough, Bailey said, “I’m not really happy about it, but I have to take what I can get,” adding, “Justice was served, but only to a point.” Bailey agreed that Pierce was not responsible in any way for the crime. “He had nothing to do with it,” she said.

Bailey’s mother, Gail Guions, was present in the courtroom on March 3 and said that she plans on making a statement at McCullough’s sentencing. Guions, a postal worker, has become active in Newark’s lesbian community since Gunn’s death and the outpouring of awareness it sparked. “I am kind of comfortable with it,” said Guions about the plea deal, adding, “I was thinking about my daughter and she is ready to go to college. And a trial would be very hard on her.”

McCullough’s court appearance was one of the few times he has been seen since his surrender to police. His attorneys have rarely spoken to the press. Last year, McCullough reportedly mailed a letter to a gay and lesbian organization in which he claimed that he did not hate homosexuals because a lesbian grandmother raised him. Asked about that disclosure, McTigue said he was unaware of it.

John McMahon, McCullough’s attorney, has filed a motion, rejected by Judge Vishness, challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey’s seldom-used bias crime statute.