Columbus--Samurai sword murderer Michael Jennings will spend at least 22 years in prison for the killing of Columbus female impersonator performer Gary McMurtry, also known as “Brazon.”
The 25-years-to-life sentence was one of the most lenient the three Franklin County Court judges could have imposed. The sentence, delivered August 25 after a four-day trial, came swiftly. The judges took about an hour to find Jennings guilty of aggravated murder, felonious assault and aggravated burglary, and 15 minutes to decide his sentence.
Prosecutors Ron O’Brien and George Ellis decided the psychiatric evidence was too strong to warrant the death penalty, so they did not ask for it.
The news of the verdict and sentencing spread quickly throughout the gay community.
“When I heard, I sat on the floor over there and cried,” said Matt Richison, who performs as Missy Marlo. “[Jennings] is a cold-blooded killer and he tried to get out of it.”
Jennings, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, was convicted in the May 17, 2002 early-morning slaying of McMurtry and an attack on McMurtry’s roommate Brian Bass. He took the stand in his own defense to explain why he committed the crime.
“I do feel like what I did was a move of self defense,” Jennings told the courtroom. “I was sad and surprised that I actually did it. I didn’t plan it out very well or I might have gotten away with it.”
As an explanation for committing the murder, Jennings, a former stripper for drag shows, said he believed McMurtry and his roommate Scott Kohl, who also performed in drag, had murdered two people he had known and he was their next target. He claimed he killed in some type of pre-emptive strike. Kohl was not home at the time of the slaying.
“I still believe it was my right to protect myself,” said Jennings. “How many people does someone have to kill before someone else takes action?”
One of those he claimed had been murdered was Chris Penn, who performed as “Peg.” Penn died of a heart attack several years ago after a performance at the Columbus Eagle nightclub.
Psychologists, whose testimony spanned two days, said that Jennings told them over the last three years that he believes he was the biblical Archangel Michael, who defeated Satan’s minions and cast them into hell. On occasion he likened himself to Joan of Arc, who claimed to receive messages from the Archangel Michael to help lead the French to victory against the English in 1429.
Dr. Dennis Eshbaugh said that Jennings told him he was on a mission to spread world peace by joining the Columbus Crew professional soccer team. Once he was on the team, the Crew would win the World Cup and he would be interviewed on television where he could finally deliver his message of world peace. The Crew eventually filed a restraining order against Jennings.
The court also heard testimony from a local Catholic priest who described an incident in 2000 when Jennings arrived at the Pontifical College Josephinum asking for sanctuary and talking about Joan of Arc. The scenario is similar to a scene from 1999’s The Messenger about the sainted French heroine, which Jennings described as a favorite movie.
In Ohio, the burden of proof for insanity includes two parts. First, a mental disease at the time of the crime must be established. Second, it must be proven that the perpetrator of the crime did not know the difference between right and wrong.
Jennings has repeatedly said he knew killing was wrong at the time of the crime, but he believed killing is sometimes justified. If it weren’t, he said, he wouldn’t be facing the death penalty.
“I knew there was people that would think that [the murder was wrong],” said Jennings. “But if it’s always wrong, why do people think I deserve the death penalty for killing Gary?”
In closing arguments, defense attorney J. Tullis Rogers gave an impassioned speech on behalf of his client, implying the decision declaring Jennings competent to stand trial may have been incorrect. He tried to separate morality and legality with the judges, saying his client believed he was morally correct in his decision to kill and was not an evil person.
“There are people who think it’s not moral and it’s illegal to be gay,” said Tullis. “I am simply asking the court to keep an open mind.”
During his testimony, Jennings denied the attack had any connection to sexual orientation.
The second intended target of the attack, Scott Kohl, was prepped by O’Brien but was dropped from the witness list before testifying. As he entered the courtroom, Jennings locked eyes with him.
Jennings’ father barely kept his composure as he read a statement from his family.
“We would like to close with an apology to Gary’s friends and family, and to apologize to our son who told us a myriad of times his life was in danger, and for not doing more,” he said. “Pray that this doesn’t happen to one of your children.”
Michael Bishop, a close friend of McMurtry’s who performs as Beverly Ford, said he is glad that some involved in the attack can start to heal but that the verdict still doesn’t change much.
”Nothing’s changed . . . she’s still dead. Regardless of what they do, she is dead and that is there forever,” said Bishop, who lived with McMurtry for two years. “As far as I am concerned it is between [Jennings] and God, and God don’t like ugly.”
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