Just Short of Murder

A jury finds that a gay man's killer may have taken "reasonable" action

His voice is calm, detached. "I cut him," James Aron Barber tells the dispatcher. "I woke up and he was trying to give me a blow job."

"Is he dead?" the dispatcher asks.

"I think so."

Barber's low voice--each word caught on a 911 call center recording--seems slightly tense, but there is no panic. No tears, no shouts, no demands for an ambulance. Barber never mentions the blood-drenched duel that he'll later claim he had just survived, the fatal struggle he'll later use as his defense. He doesn't mention the name of the 41-year-old gay man who lies dead at his feet, the body folded in a kind of fallen lotus

Barber also doesn't mention that he supposedly had to kick Anderson away after waking up to find the man giving him oral sex. He doesn't say that Anderson then lunged at him with a 14-inch butcher knife--the same knife he then used to kill his alleged assailant. He doesn't explain that he had to keep stabbing Anderson--a tall, gaunt man suffering from full-blown AIDS, emphysema, hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver--because Anderson refused to quit fighting.

In fact, Barber, then 22, a Minneapolis man with a history of violent crime and drug abuse, hardly explains the situation at all over the phone. He says only that a man tried to perform fellatio on him while he slept, and now that man is dead.

The dispatcher, Marilyn Heseth continues to ask questions while silently directing police to a Northeast Minneapolis apartment building.

"Where did you get the knife?" she asks.

"It was in the room," Barber replies.

Sirens sound in the distance. Barber tells the dispatcher he wants to call his dad before cops arrive. Though Heseth urges him to stay on the line, he hangs up. But he doesn't flee. Police arrive at the apartments on the 2600 block of Marshall Street to find Barber--a tall, lean, muscular man--waiting in the bedroom where Anderson died. The dead man's drying blood coats Barber's bare chest and the knees of his camouflage trousers. There are even spots on the suspect's back. The mattress where the stabbing took place is soaked with blood.

Barber offers no resistance as cops handcuff and haul him away. He offers no explanation. But as he's led to a squad car, he does blurt out what sounds like an excuse: "What would you do if you woke up to finding someone sucking your dick?!" he asks one officer.

Last month, on June 12 in Room 1653 of the Hennepin County Courthouse, a 12-person jury passed judgment on Barber's actions and claim of self-defense. After 10 hours of deliberations, the six men and six women--some young, some old, all white--found Barber guilty of the least serious charge he faced in the Nov. 8, 1997, slaying of Gregor Anderson: one count of first-degree manslaughter, committed in the heat of passion. On two counts of second-degree murder, they found him innocent.

In choosing manslaughter over murder charges, said Judge Allen Oleisky in his instructions to the jury before they began deliberations, the jurors had to determine that Barber had acted in a fit of rage that would have consumed any "reasonable" person in similar circumstances.

The jury had effectively answered Barber's question to the cop: They would have done the same thing.

A "Good" But Troubled Victim

There are two versions of what happened in the early morning hours of Nov. 8. And neither account--the prosecution's story, nor the defense's--paint the victim, Gregor Anderson, in a flattering light. The story outlined by prosecutors holds that in his final hours Anderson was a manipulative crack addict who promised to trade drugs for sex with a heterosexual man, and then was killed for failing to deliver the dope. Defense lawyers countered with another portrait: Anderson, they told jurors, was a diseased, predatory gay man who drugged and then sexually assaulted Barber, who had been lured into Anderson's bedroom with the promise of a place to crash and more crack cocaine to smoke the next day.

His family and friends describe Anderson as a kind, conscientious man, a volunteer whose persuasiveness with donors helped a start-up charity store to flourish. But he was also a man with a morose flip side--a chronic alcoholic and crack abuser who floated in and out of treatment centers; a gay man who was hiding his homosexuality from his family for fear of rejection; a man wrestling with AIDS and living on Social Security.

But family, friends, and Assistant Hennepin County prosecutor Carrie Lennon all agree on one thing: Greg Anderson was not a violent person.

"I don't believe that Greg Anderson was sexually assaulting [Barber]," Lennon says. "I don't believe he would have sexually assaulted anyone, that's why I find that argument [of self-defense] disingenuous."

"He could not have fought that guy," says Jane Miller, executive director of Exchange Charities, the Minneapolis nonprofit where Anderson was a full-time volunteer. "I could have flattened him with a blow. I'm 5-foot-2 and 115 pounds, and I could have hurt him easily. He was tall and he was underweight, and he had no muscle structure at all."

As an organizer, Anderson's persuasive skills helped the store procure donated office equipment, furniture, and innumerable items to sell. He was a "good man" who helped the organization stay afloat, Miller says.

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