Just Short of Murder

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.

Lynn Anderson Jarmon, also of Minneapolis, says her brother Gregor was her best friend. "I talked to him almost every day," she says. "If I needed something done around the house before I met my husband, he'd be the first one there to help do it. I still find myself reaching for the phone to call him, and then I think, 'Oh....'"

Hanging with the Wrong Crowd

The man who last saw Anderson alive, James Barber, also has his defenders.

In the latter stages of the trial, a raft of family and friends began showing up to support the accused. His father, John Henry Barber, testified on the stand that he couldn't recall the particulars of a damning jailhouse phone conversation he'd had with his son in the wake of the murder. Despite the prompting of prosecutors, who read portions of the transcript in court, John Barber claimed to recollect nothing. "What do they expect me to do," he said in a hallway outside the courtroom, shortly after stepping down from the stand. "I should be called in by the defense to testify for my son, not against him. I'm not going to give them anything to put him away. I don't remember nothing!"

John Barber says his son was "a good, smart kid," whose life began to go sour after the boy turned six and his parents divorced. James started smoking cigarettes, then pot. By 13 he was getting into fights at school, hanging with the wrong crowd. He moved back and forth between his parents' homes, occasionally running away.

As a teen, James started using hard drugs, and selling them for adult dealers in his neighborhood. He stole, his father says, and was locked up in a juvenile facility. He got out, but his behavior only worsened. In 1991, he was a participant in a drive-by shooting (his friend confessed to pulling the trigger). Later, says John Barber, James stole his father's guns and sold them for drug money, something the two later joked about. After moving to Florida with his mother to help care for an ailing grandmother, James robbed a bowling alley at gunpoint. He was incarcerated for three years, but came out bragging that he never "got together" with a man while incarcerated.

Following his release, James started drug-abuse treatment in Florida. But his recovery was short-lived, says John Barber, who is himself recovering from alcoholism and crack-cocaine addiction. James moved back to Minnesota and took a job in a factory. He seemed to straighten out for a time, but then returned to alcohol and crack. On Thursday, Nov. 6, 1997, James quit his job. The Anderson murder took place two days later. James was scheduled to return to Florida for treatment the following Wednesday, his father says.

"He ain't got no bad temper," John Barber says of his son in an interview during the trial. "He ain't no pushover. He'll fight; he fought three or four dudes one time. But he won't pick no fights. I know him that well."

But even James Barber's father harbors doubts about what happened in Gregor Anderson's apartment. "This incident that happened," he says, "I guess I'll never know the whole story."

From Dusk to Dawn

Speaking under oath in Hennepin County court, James Barber said he and a friend spent much of the evening of Nov. 7--in the hours that preceded Anderson's death--drinking and smoking crack while driving a pickup around Minneapolis. When they ran out of cocaine, they bought more on the street. When their street connections dried up, they called one of Barber's work supervisors. No luck. Then Barber's friend, Charlie Kelly, suggested visiting an acquaintance, Gregor Anderson.

Barber and Kelly had encountered Anderson once previously, when the three men had shared a crack pipe. Anderson would help them out, Kelly assured his friend. "I didn't want to go," Barber told the jury. If Anderson was home on a Friday night, it meant he was probably broke. He would want to share whatever rocks they managed to score.

Still, they went. To Barber's surprise, Anderson not only had a connection, he also had money. After calling a neighbor in his apartment complex, Anderson helped purchase $100 worth of crack. They split it four ways, and the neighbor departed. Sitting around a small table in Anderson's bedroom, Barber, Kelly, and their host proceeded to get high. Anderson's elderly, invalid roommate slept in the living room on the couch--unaware of the party.  

Before long, the crack ran out again. Another late-night drug run occurred, followed by more smoking. At about 4 a.m., Kelly announced he had to leave, he was going hunting in two hours. Barber, who said he was planning to return that evening to the home of his young child's mother, suddenly became distressed. He made several frantic phone calls to the woman's pager, with no response.

Exactly what happened next is difficult to discern: According to Barber, Anderson offered to let him stay and rest, since he himself would be leaving soon to get more drugs. But Barber, jittery from the cocaine, was having trouble sleeping. He took a shower at the apartment to "wash away the feeling," but it didn't work, so Anderson approached his roommate, who was recovering from heart surgery, for some opiate pain killers. Barber took several, and drifted off to sleep. Anderson was still in the room with him.

Barber told jurors he awoke with a start, feeling he was having a "wet dream." Looking down, he found Anderson performing fellatio on him. He kicked Anderson away, but the older man, according to Barber, produced a large butcher knife and lunged, swinging the weapon at Barber's face.

The knife missed its mark, and Barber punched Anderson in the face, forcing the stunned man to lose his grip on the weapon. The knife flew forward, past Barber's head, landing behind the head of the mattress. As Anderson reached for the blade over Barber's body, Barber, still on his back, groped blindly behind his head and managed to grab it first. He brought the knife forward, under Anderson, stabbing him in the throat with a stab so vicious that it both severed his jugular vein and chipped the vertebrate in the back of his neck.

By Barber's account, Anderson continued to fight. He grabbed Barber's testicles and squeezed, forcing Barber to stab him again and again. They continued to wrestle, making their way off the mattress to the floor, where Barber got Anderson in a headlock. Then he took the knife and plunged it deep into Anderson's side, so hard that the 9-inch blade produced a 10-inch-deep wound. Anderson finally stopped struggling.

"I thought I was going to die," Barber told the court. "I'm sorry his life was taken. I'm sorry for his family. But I felt if I hadn't done what I did, it would be the other way around."

The Courtroom Evidence

Photographs of the crime scene, however, suggest a different story: Consensual sex took place in the room that night. There were cans of Crisco in the room, there were wigs and ligatures, says county prosecutor Carrie Lennon. But because such evidence could have been damaging to both sides, neither the defense nor the prosecution introduced it in testimony.

Instead, prosecutors relied on faint DNA evidence to drive home the possibility of consensual sex. Sperm-cell fragments found in Anderson's rectal cavity during an autopsy two days after the killing matched blood samples taken from Barber. Wasn't it possible, and didn't it make more sense, Lennon asked jurors, to believe that Anderson offered Barber drugs for his sexual favors, but then failed to deliver? That Barber, in a fit of rage over being duped into committing a homosexual act, assaulted Anderson in revenge?

Barber's attorneys quickly countered, characterizing the theory as circumstantial at best. The DNA sample was scant, they said, the results inconclusive. A DNA expert hired by the defense team effectively thrashed the theory's credibility.

Lennon's closing summation pointed to serious gaps in Barber's story. Anderson was 50 pounds lighter than Barber and weakened by disease. Why, she asked, was deadly force needed? Barber himself testified that Anderson was disarmed before he was stabbed. And there is a question of why the knife flew forward when Anderson was punched in the face, after he allegedly swung the knife at Barber and missed.

Also, Lennon asked jurors, why was there a pool of blood on the mattress, all concentrated in one spot, if a wild fight had taken place? If Barber was on his back for most of the assault, as he maintained, it seems strange that there were stain-free indents in the mattress that looked like knee prints, especially since the knees of Barber's pants were soaked with blood. Perhaps, Lennon suggested, Barber was really on top of Anderson, stabbing the older man as he lay under Barber, helpless to defend himself.  

Equally mysterious is this: Anderson's roommate, who lay on the couch outside the bedroom as the supposed scuffled went on, says he heard nothing that night. Neither did Anderson's neighbors.

The Meaning of Manslaughter

The manslaughter verdict, says Lennon, shows that the jury rejected Barber's assertion of self-defense, but that they believed he had been sexually assaulted. What might be called a kind of underlying, unspoken strategy--playing on jurors own fears and stereotypes about homosexual men--may have been ultimately more convincing to the panel than the physical evidence.

"[Manslaughter] is a convenient verdict for people because it can feed into prejudices people have about gay men--that they are predators, that they try to convert people to their 'team,'" Lennon says. "It's the same prejudice that people have when they say they don't want a gay man to be a Cub Scout leader, as though gay men are automatically pedophiles. You can really hook into what people want to believe."

Hennepin County public defender Dan Homstad, who argued Barber's case with attorney Mark Deveraj, insists homophobic manipulation was not among the defense's tactics. "Never at any time did we ever try to imply anything to the jury like that, he says. "We believe that Mr. Barber acted in self-defense, and we still do.

"The jury must have believed, at least, part of Mr. Barber's testimony," he says. "That Mr. Barber awoke to an unwanted sexual assault and that he acted in the heat of passion."

But Tommie Seidel, coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council's (GLCAC) anti-violence task force, says the case illustrates the prevailing stereotypes about homosexual men. Her office, part of OutFront Minnesota, is pushing prosecutors to slap felony suspects with misdemeanor hate-crime charges when incidents stem from anti-gay bias. Barber's "blow job" statement to police and to the 911 dispatcher make it clear that anti-gay sentiment played a part in Anderson's death, she says.

"Is that justification for why he killed this person? That it was about this sort of societal understanding that gay men are a 'lesser class?'" Seidel says.

By adding a hate-crime charge to the murder charges, Seidel says, the prosecutor's office would have sent a message to the public that violence against gays is intolerable. And the hate-crime charge also might have provided the judge an opportunity to increase the duration of Barber's sentence.

But Lennon, who chose not to prosecute the case as a hate crime, says there was insufficient evidence to call the killing a hate crime. Besides, she says, adding a misdemeanor charge on top of a charge as heinous as murder only dampens the impact of the original charges. "I don't know how you put this case in that category without looking foolish," Lennon says.

Seidel says the GLCAC is currently trying to decide how to publicly respond to the Barber decision.

There's another point to remember, Lennon says. For all his laudable qualities, Gregor Anderson led a life that put him in harm's way. That also may serve to explain the jury's decision to convict Barber for manslaughter instead of a more serious charge, she says.

"This guy [Anderson] made some mistakes, and unfortunately paid for them with his life," Lennon says. "Unfortunately there is this real promiscuous subculture [within some parts] of the gay community that I encounter in my work, people who live pretty dangerously. In some people's minds, that's kind of an offensive lifestyle, and the [jury's] reaction to that could be, 'If you hang with the dangerous crowd, bad things can happen to you.'"

Sentencing in the Barber case is set for July 6. Lennon says Barber will probably receive a sentence of 98 months in jail--a little more than eight years--due to his prior felony conviction for armed robbery. Had Barber been found guilty of one of the two murder charges, Lennon says, guidelines would have allowed a sentence of 13 to 27 years.

Homstad says his client has yet to decide whether he'll appeal the sentence.

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