Pa. Supreme Court candidate's 'gay-panic' defense

Supreme Court Candidates
Mike George played up a murder victim's homosexuality while defending the gunman in a 1988 trial.

CLAUDIA Brenner survived five gunshot wounds from a deranged mountain man near the Appalachian Trail - only to be humiliated on the witness stand by a defense lawyer who wanted to portray Brenner and her dead girlfriend as reckless lesbians who might've brought the shooting on themselves.

Brenner's girlfriend, Rebecca Wight, 28, was killed that day in 1988 along the Rocky Knob Trail in south-central Pennsylvania.

The gunman, Stephen Roy Carr, was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life prison sentence.

And the lawyer, Mike George, is running for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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"HIKER MURDER SUSPECT ARRESTED;'MOUNTAIN MAN' IS FOUND ON FARM," read a May 25, 1988, Daily News headline.

"A TIME OF TERROR WHEN SHOTS RANG OUT, HIKER TESTIFIES," the Inquirer wrote on Jun 24, 1988.

But before Carr was found guilty, George delved deep into Brenner's sex life with Wight, hoping to get some residents - and potential jurors - in conservative Adams County to speculate about whether the couple's sexual orientation might have provoked Carr into opening fire.

"That's why we had to get all the steamy facts of what had happened up on South Mountain out before the public. Sort of let what happened simmer in the public's imagination," George said in a book interview more than a decade later. "In a way, we wanted to get the local folks talking more about the lesbianism than the murder."

During Carr's preliminary hearing, George asked Brenner whether they were "fondling each other" or "feeling each other" and whether Wight had "her mouth on your genitals."

Brenner, a 31-year-old graduate student at the time, was shot in her face, neck, head and arm, yet she hiked almost 4 miles to get help. Wight died at the campsite.

Today, Brenner is an architect living in Ithaca, N.Y. Her story is the subject of "In the Hollow," a short documentary now playing at LGBT film festivals. She's troubled by the idea of George becoming a justice on Pennsylvania's highest court. He is one of seven candidates running for three seats on the bench.

"That concerns me," Brenner told the Daily News last week. "He's someone who would be judging very serious issues in people's lives."

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Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, a group that advocates for LGBT rights, said he's worried that George, if elected, might have to rule on nondiscrimination or hate-law legislation during his term.

"He's proven in the past that he is willing to use questionable and very negative tactics that revolve around a person's sexual orientation to make his case, and I think that's wrong," Martin said. "It calls into question his ability to be fair and really understand all the sides."

Last year, California banned the use of the "gay-panic defense" by perpetrators accused of attacking LGBT people. The American Bar Association has called for other states and the federal government to pass similar legislation.

"Frankly, what Michael George did to Claudia Brenner is repulsive," Martin said.

George, a Republican serving his second 10-year term as an Adams County Common Pleas judge, declined to comment on his defense of Carr.

Vincent Galko, an adviser to the George campaign, said in a statement that George "believes the defendant is properly serving a life sentence for this heinous crime," but that the candidate is "unable to offer meaningful comment" on his defense tactics without reviewing the record of the 1988 case.

During extensive interviews for the 1999 book The Whole Truth? A Case of Murder on the Appalachian Trail, George was much more loquacious.

"I wanted to get her full story on the record," George said in the book, written by Dickinson College political-science professor Harold Pohlman. "That meant a full story as to how many times the women were naked and how many times they engaged in lesbian sex. I wanted the graphic details. All of them."

George also said: "I wanted it to look like these two women were bold with their lesbianism. That they didn't hide their lesbianism from anybody, including my client. The more sexually reckless the women appeared, the better for Carr."

The goal, George told Pohlman, was to "put the two women into a poor light" and influence the potential jury pool in Adams County through sensational headlines focused on the victims' sexuality.

"The one thing that I could not get out of my mind was that the local people did not think much of homosexuals," George recalled.

In an interview this week, Pohlman said that George read the book after it was published and "thought it was a pretty damn good book."

"I do know that the lawyer owes the client a zealous defense, but of course there are limits," Pohlman said. "It's not like he deliberately lied. He just asked questions."

In October 1988, Carr was found guilty of first-degree murder in a nonjury trial. But George filed a postconviction motion claiming that Brenner and Wight might have provoked Carr because they "partook in oral sex" and "put on what the defendant perceived to be a show."

Then-District Attorney Roy Keefer shot back in a court filing, calling the motion "nothing more than a ruse in order to slander the victims," according to Pohlman's book. The judge rejected the request for a new trial.

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But that was 27 years ago. Keefer, now a private lawyer in Gettysburg, said that after following George's work as an Adams County judge, he doesn't have "any qualms" about George serving on the Supreme Court.

"I can understand why Claudia has her feelings and I certainly don't minimize those, but I've seen a whole lot more than that one case," Keefer said, adding that he intends to vote for George next week.

Daniel Filler, a Drexel University law professor, said that voters can't necessarily make judgments about George based on his tactics as a defense lawyer.

"You have an ethical duty to aggressively advocate for your client," he said. "Sometimes you're put in a position where what you think is the strategically best defense is also one that conflicts with your own personal morality."

But Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said that voters should learn as much as possible about judicial candidates, including their "legal experience on and off the bench, and reputation for fairness and integrity."

"Voters should also know that the role of a judge is very different from the role of a lawyer advocating for a particular client," Marks said. "But it's important for voters to get as much information as possible when making critical decisions, such as who to vote for to become a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who will sit in judgment of others."

Especially in scandal-ridden Pennsylvania, where:

* State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned in 2013 after she was convicted of campaign-corruption charges.

* Justice Seamus McCaffery retired last year amid blackmail allegations in an email-porn scandal.

*  Justice J. Michael Eakin is under investigation for sending and receiving sexist and racist emails.

It's been more than a quarter-century, but to Brenner, George is still the man who put her through hell in a courtroom a month after her girlfriend was killed.

"All I know," Brenner said, "is that this guy added a lot of pain to a very traumatic and painful time in my life."

On Twitter: @wbender99