LANSING — After two years of uncertainty, last week Larkin Neely reached a plea agreement with the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office for the 2017 murder of Kevin Wirth, an openly gay man, who was stabbed 26 times in his Lansing home. Neely pled guilty but mentally ill to second-degree murder and armed robbery with an agreed-upon sentence of 30 to 60 years. Neely’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2.
The incident happened on May 21, 2017, when Neely was visiting Lansing and met Wirth at a local bar. The two went home together, and shortly before 7 a.m. the next morning Wirth’s body was found. Hours later Neely was arrested in Detroit. Police found blood on some of Wirth’s clothing that was disposed of outside of Neely’s Detroit home, as well as DNA evidence inside Neely’s Lansing hotel room. Because of Wirth’s sexual orientation and the small amount of time the two men knew each other, some in the LGBTQ community have suspected that the crime was motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias, which has stirred controversy.
Emily Dievendorf is an independent political and nonprofit consultant who advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community. The former executive director of Equality Michigan and president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, she now serves as treasurer on LAHR’s board. She worked directly with Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski two years ago when this case first came to light. She agreed that it has the signs of being a bias crime that might not be first evident to the untrained eye.
“Indicators that are more obvious to those that are trained on recognizing bias that aren’t necessarily things like hate symbols or repetitive use of hate slurs [they can be] things like the number of times that somebody has been assaulted. Because one of the things that we do see in hate crime cases against marginalized communities is that unlike other assaults, the assault does not stop when the person has been successfully harmed, it just continues. They are harmed over and over again,” Dievendorf said. “So that regardless of the length of the relationship, regardless of whether there is depth of connection or actual intimacy there, it ends up looking and feeling like a crime of passion.”
She said that the fact that Wirth’s body was both beaten and stabbed more than 20 times suggests that hate was Neely’s motivating factor. What also stands out, she said, is that Neely didn’t leave the crime scene once he had killed Wirth, he waited until morning.
John Dewane is the deputy chief assistant prosecutor in Ingham County and worked directly on this case. He said that although hate may have been Neely’s motive it isn’t something that is provable.
“I don’t know the motive behind Larkin Neely — Larkin said some things in his forensic interview at the forensic center and with other experts that, obviously, he had some mental illness going on and he was somewhat delusional. Kevin told him when they left [that he] was homosexual — I think Larkin wanted to go find some ladies and Kevin said, ‘Well, I think I can help you do that. There’s a different bar.’ And, eventually, I think Kevin got him back to the house probably with the intention of hooking up with him,” Dewane said. “And I don’t know if, Larkin, his motivation to going back was to kill him because he was homosexual — I can’t prove that. … Or maybe Kevin said something to him of a sexual nature and maybe at that point Larkin said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna kill him.’”
Initially, after an evaluation by a psychologist, Dewane said, Neely was found to be unfit to stand trial due to mental illness because “the psychologist there opined that he did suffer a mental illness and a thought disorder and then she said, basically, [it] really comes down to whether the jury believes that whether Kevin Wirth came on sexually to Larkin.”
“And then Larkin, if he responded by acting in self-defense, then he wasn’t legally insane because he was doing what a rational person would do and [that would be to] defend themselves. But she also flipped around and said, ‘However, if Larkin Neely was delusional at the time — meaning that Kevin never came onto him — then he was insane because he wasn’t in reality,’” Dewane said. “I didn’t agree with that opinion, so we went and hired our own independent expert and he opined that, conservatively, he thought that Larkin had a mental illness — I think it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — but that he was not legally insane. But he also opined that he was criminally responsible.”
Because Neely’s intention before his plea deal was to claim that he killed Wirth in self-defense that action could be interpreted as an attempt to use the “gay panic defense.”
“The LGBTQ+ panic defense strategy (also called the ‘gay panic defense’ or ‘trans panic defense’) is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder,” says The National LGBT Bar Association. “It is not a free-standing defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic used to bolster other defenses. When a perpetrator uses an LGBTQ+ panic defense, they are claiming that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity not only explains — but excuses — a loss of self-control and the subsequent assault. By fully or partially acquitting the perpetrators of crimes against LGBTQ+ victims, this defense implies that LGBTQ+ lives are worth less than others.”
When asked if he thought this was the intention of the defendant, Dewane said that he had not heard of the defense before but after looking it up he found that several states have banned its use — not Michigan, however. He said that what was more likely was that Neely’s attorneys would attempt to argue that Neely had “diminished capacity” — an argument that says the mental capacity of the accused was diminished to the point that they did not have the intent required to commit the crime.
“In Michigan, we don’t have diminished capacity, so that defense wouldn’t slide anyway,” Dewane said. “He could possible argue manslaughter that in the heat of the passion of the moment made him react the way he did, and in law school the basic example is that you come home and you find your significant other — your partner, your wife, whatnot — in bed with somebody else and you just flip out and murder somebody. That’s the classic law school example for manslaughter, but that defense was never mentioned by the defendant’s attorney. And I Googled it and was looking at it in case I had to do a motion limiting to strike that defense, but his defense was always going to be either insanity or self-defense or both.”
Dewane went on to add that had Neely’s legal team attempted to argue self-defense that he would have fought against that claim as well.
“My position was Kevin Wirth never sexually came on to Larkin Neely,” Dewane said. “That’s my position, because Kevin Wirth sent text messages to his neighbor and three of his friends indicating that he was scared to death that he was going to be murdered and he was scared that he needed to find a weapon to protect himself, that he was going to set his alarm, that he had never felt so endangered. And, to me, you’re not going to hit on another person or come on to another person if you’re fearful of being killed by that person. It just doesn’t make sense.”
American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan LGBT Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan offered insight into the case as well. He said that because Michigan does not have a specific bar on the gay panic defense coupled with the fact that Neely pleaded guilty makes it difficult to say whether or not that was the intention of Neely’s attorneys. Still, because it’s not explicitly banned in Michigan, it could have been a possibility.
Learning From Tragedy
Dievendorf said that despite the difficulty of proving whether this case was a hate crime and that Neely intended to present a biased form of defense, this case is a learning opportunity. She said it provides an example of what to look for in cases that might not outwardly appear as a hate crime and to make more law enforcement officials aware of the antiquated gay panic defense.
“We can always do better in the way that we respond to possible bias incidents. And really, every community should have a possible bias incident response plan where the law enforcement community is working with the community that is potentially impacted by the incident. And I was working with the chief on this, that is how I was involved at all, so there was communication happening,” she said. “But, unfortunately, we didn’t have that same communication happening with the prosecutor. So there wasn’t that help in looking for indicators; there wasn’t that training to make sure that the prosecutors knew of the things to look for.”
Dievendorf went on to explain that she became well-versed in identifying hate crimes when she was in her role as executive director of Equality Michigan. In particular, she dealt with identifying the signs of a hate crime for transgender women of color.
“When hate crimes happen to marginalized people they are especially ugly, especially cruel,” she said. “Because, so often, when a trans woman of color is finally found they’ve not just been murdered they’ve been burned, they’ve been dismembered, and we don’t like to talk about it because it’s triggering, because it reminds us of how the world sees the LGBTQ community, but that’s also the truth of it. And it’s also so clearly illustrative of a hate crime and what makes a hate crime different, because that is truly the message to a larger community.”
Dievendorf said that communities across Michigan looking to make a difference in future cases should develop a potential bias incident response plan, which she hopes to one day implement in Lansing and “would love to do an inventory of any and all forms related to investigations and what our prosecutors ought to be doing.” She also said that she’s heartened by the fact that Fair Michigan, a nonprofit that works to prosecute hate crimes in the State of Michigan, just recently expanded its services to Ingham County.
“I really think that the work that Fair Michigan is doing, if we can try to expand that to as many counties as possible just to make sure that we can get as many cases that come up going through the system in a more effective and efficient way, that will have people at least taking these cases more seriously so that we can start trying to reform the system,” she said.