Don Belton, Michael Griffin and the gay panic defense
Dec. 4, 2012
Three years ago this Christmas, IU assistant professor Don Belton arrived at the home of former-marine Michael Griffin for a dinner party. Two days later, he was dead and accused of sexually assaulting the man who killed him.
Did Griffin and his lawyers use a controversial legal tactic known as the “gay panic defense” to get a lighter sentence for the crime?
THAT DECEMBER MORNING, a snow had fallen. It dampened the sounds of a town already muted by the mass departure of IU students who had headed home for winter break. It was especially quiet at the home of assistant writing professor Don Belton when his colleague and friend Debra Kang Dean crunched her way through the snow and knocked on his front door.
Dean had promised to housesit for Belton while he was visiting a friend in Hawaii, but she hadn’t heard from him since a phone call the previous afternoon. They had been talking about how she could get his house keys when Belton suddenly hung up, saying he would contact her later.
That was shortly before 4 p.m., Dec. 27, 2009. He never called back, and when Dean had called him later that evening, Belton had not picked up. She checked his house, and no one answered her knock at the door.
Now it was the next morning, and she was again standing on the porch of Belton’s pale yellow, one-floor house. She knocked and tried the doorbell again. He didn’t seem to be home. Dean peered through the front window and could see into the kitchen.
Belton was lying on the tile floor. The door was unlocked and Dean rushed inside.
“Don?” she asked, but he didn’t answer.
A pool of blood swirled around his head and matted his short dreadlocks. His hands were palms up. His head was face down.
Dean called 911.
“I’m sorry,” she said into the phone, before yelling out to her friend again. “Don? Oh my God. I just came into my friend’s house and he’s on the floor with blood all over.”
Officers from the Bloomington Police Department soon arrived at the home. In Belton’s bedroom, they saw an open suitcase on his bed, empty and ready to be packed. They observed blood not only in the kitchen, but also in the living room and office.
Throughout the house, they found stacks and shelves of books, including several journals. In the most recent volume, the detectives read an entry about how happy Belton was that a man had recently come into his life. The man’s name was Michael. On a 4×6 index card were directions to the man’s house.
Police soon arrested 25-year-old Michael Griffin and charged him with killing Belton. Griffin would even confess to the crime. There was no doubt, reasonable or otherwise: at his trial, all sides would agree that the former marine had killed the writing professor.
But was he a murderer?
THE QUESTION EMERGED with Griffin’s defense, piggybacking on an accusation against a dead man. Griffin told police that Belton assaulted him two days before the killing. Belton’s death, therefore, came in a moment of rage that was a result of that assault.
The allegation shocked those who knew and worked with the professor, a man who allegedly abhorred violence — when students visited him they were greeted by Buddhist quotes tacked to his office door. Belton’s friends began to worry that Griffin’s lawyers were preparing to use a controversial legal tactic. Their fears were seemingly confirmed when a cbsnews.com headline asked, “Did ‘Gay Panic’ Lead Ex-Marine Michael Griffin to Kill Professor Don Belton?”
The gay panic defense, as it is casually called, is not actually a legal defense at all.
“It’s not an officially recognized defense that’s on the books, but the term is often used as a shorthand for various strategies under a plea, say, of temporary insanity or self-defense or some kind of diminished capacity,” said IU professor Alyce Miller, a lawyer and a friend of Belton’s who testified at Griffin’s trial.
The assault or murder of a gay or lesbian person can then be chalked up to retaliation or self-defense against their sexual advances. When dealing with such an advance, the argument goes, a panic sets in, leading the suspect to commit manslaughter, not murder.
It has its roots in an obscure, and presumably outdated, psychiatric disorder called acute homosexual panic, or Kempf’s Disease, named after the psychiatrist who penned the term in the 1920s. It is described as “an acute severe attack of anxiety based on unconscious conflicts involving gender identity.”
Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, said gay panic should carry no weight as a legal defense.
“Defining it, as well as believing that it inspires murder, would take a leap of imagination rather than facts,” Heiman said. Yet, gay panic keeps popping up in courtrooms.
It was famously used during the early days of the Matthew Shepard case in Wyoming in 1998, though it was later abandoned. Since 2004, the defense has been used successfully in at least six states. Its success is indiscriminate of locale — from the mistrial of a California teenager who shot a classmate twice in the head, to the 180-day-sentence of a Washington D.C. man whose victim lay in coma for ten days before dying.
In 2009, Joseph Biedermann was acquitted of a first-degree murder in Illinois after he said his victim had made unwanted sexual advances toward him. Biedermann stabbed the man 61 times.
In 2008, Coleman King and Garrett Gray brutally beat Aaron “Shorty” Hall to death and dumped his body near a Jackson County, Ind., cornfield after he allegedly hit on them. Hall was kicked, punched and left naked in a ditch to die. The court accepted the men’s pleas of manslaughter.
Under Indiana law, someone who is guilty of manslaughter is a “person who knowingly or intentionally: kills another human being; or kills a fetus that has attained viability; while acting under sudden heat.” The existence of sudden heat, a momentary explosion of uncontrollable rage or panic, reduces what would otherwise be murder to voluntary manslaughter. It also reduces the sentence.
“Shorty” Hall’s killers received a 30-year-sentence and will likely serve just half of that in prison.
Though Griffin’s defense team would never actually utter the phrase “gay panic,” all of its elements were there in the team’s developing argument. There was the hope for a manslaughter verdict. There was the straight man alleging a gay man assaulted him.
And there was the claim that the killing happened under sudden heat.
BY THE TIME Don Belton left his hometown of Philadelphia and began teaching at IU in 2008, he was already a respected author and academic. He frequently explored themes of identity, sexuality and perceived masculinity — all issues at the heart of his own murder — through his writing.
He became known for his work tackling these issues with the publication of his 1986 novel, “Almost Midnight.” In 1996, he edited a well-received collection of essays and stories called “Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream.” He read and taught in France, Brazil, Ireland, Italy and the Ivory Coast.
By all accounts, Belton was successful, though he didn’t always feel it. He wrote about a “soul-sick sadness” he inherited from his father and his father’s father. It was the kind of sadness he felt from being an African American who had once worked at a college that had not granted tenure to a black professor in 20 years.
While his writing often addressed contentious issues, Belton’s friends and colleagues said he hated confrontation and violence. Mara Miller, a friend of Belton’s for a decade, said he was extremely peaceful. It was Miller who Belton was going to visit in Hawaii, and she spent days after his death wondering why her friend never arrived at Honolulu International Airport. She described Belton as a man who avoided confrontation even in the face of racism and homophobia.
“He was incapable of violent behavior,” she said.
MICHAEL GRIFFIN WAS born and raised in Bloomington. He attended Bloomington High School South before joining the United States Marine Corps in 2002. Before he was deployed to Iraq, he bought a 10-inch, double-edged knife called a Peace Keeper. He carried it with him during his tour, using it to intimidate insurgents in Fallujah.
Griffin became a machine gunner and lance corporal. Later, an Improvised Explosive Device ripped apart both his right eardrum and one of his best friends. The explosion also sent shrapnel tearing into his leg, leaving him partially disabled. Griffin earned a Purple Heart and returned home without killing anyone.
“I came back clean,” he later said.
Back in Bloomington, Griffin sought rehab for his disabilities as well as counseling with a local Veterans Affairs support group. He became a father, though the romance with the child’s mother did not last.
Later, he began dating a young woman named Jessica Greiwe, and the couple carved out a sustainable lifestyle in New Unionville, a nearby township about five miles from IU’s campus.
They grew their own vegetables and raised chickens — food that, in part, would be served at spirited, debate-filled dinner parties. He frequented Rachael’s Café, an open-minded and inclusive coffee shop owned and operated by a transgender woman, who they sometimes invited over for dinner.
He still often carried his Peace Keeper, tucked into a sheath on his belt.
BELTON'S AND GRIFFIN'S paths first crossed in 2009.
At a local gift store called Athena, they struck up a conversation about the Iraq War. Belton was impressed to learn that the former marine now had an antiwar stance. The two later ran into each other again at the Monroe County Public Library. When Belton’s birthday arrived, Griffin and Greiwe invited the professor over for dinner.
According to Belton’s colleagues, Griffin and Greiwe did yard work for various members of the English faculty, and they spoke fondly of the professor. A few months later, Griffin helped Belton move some furniture from the IU Surplus Store to his home.
In December, they invited Belton to Christmas dinner. Griffin’s sister, Rita, and her boyfriend also came over. They ate a large meal, drank rum sidecars, smoked marijuana and played the game Apples to Apples, Griffin later said.
At one point, he gave Belton a tarot card reading, drawing the “transformation” card, otherwise known as the “death” card. This seemed to concern Belton, according to Griffin’s testimony. He told the professor not to worry.
The “transformation” card can mean many things, Griffin said, not only death.
With the final hours of Christmas waning, Rita and her boyfriend left. Belton settled into a recliner to watch a movie, telling the couple he was too drunk and high to make it home. Griffin and Greiwe laid down on a bed in the living room. Griffin later said that he soon passed out and has no memory of the rest of the night.
Greiwe later testified that, despite blacking out repeatedly, she remembered much of what happened between the two men. Belton and Griffin had sex multiple times, she said. Twice she saw them having anal sex, as well as oral sex. While she said that she doesn’t recall Griffin struggling, she said he was heavily intoxicated.
The next morning, a Saturday, the three shared breakfast together before Belton went home.
On Sunday, Griffin and Greiwe ate at Muddy Boots Cafe in Nashville, Ind., and hiked the Tecumseh Trail in nearby Morgan County with some friends. Griffin brought his Peace Keeper with him.
After returning home, Griffin decided to run some errands. As he neared Belton’s side of town, he later said, he felt compelled to visit the professor to talk about what happened Christmas night. Griffin parked a block away and walked to Belton’s house. Belton was in his driveway discussing travel plans over the phone with someone but motioned for Griffin to follow him inside.
It was shortly before 4 p.m., Dec. 27. Belton wrapped up the phone call and got Griffin a glass of water from the kitchen.
What happened next is only known by two people. One of them is dead. The other is his killer. Griffin later testified that the two exchanged heated words about the sexual encounter, which led to a shoving match. Griffin drew the 10-inch blade still tucked in his belt. Then, he testified, he blacked out.
“I remember that we were fighting and remember we stopped fighting,” Griffin said. “He lurched forward and I saw what I had done.”
He stabbed Belton 21 times and, according to medical examiner and forensic pathologist Dr. Roland Kohr, “half-heartedly” attempted to slit his throat. At one point, Griffin even stabbed Belton and then rotated the knife 45 degrees before removing it. He nearly severed Belton’s pulmonary artery.
Griffin wiped the knife on Belton’s corduroy pants and ran to his truck. He sat in the driver’s seat, shaking, before catching sight of himself in his rear view mirror. He saw blood on his face, shirt and pants. Outside his truck, snow was falling. Griffin wiped his face clean and changed into some clothes he had in his vehicle.
Then he returned some DVDs to the Monroe County Public Library and bought some water at Bloomingfoods Market and Deli. He also drove to see his sister. She had left her scarf at his house. She asked for a ride to her friend’s, and Griffin obliged.
“Please don’t be scared,” he told her as they drove. “But I just killed somebody.”
Rita didn’t know what to say, and Griffin dropped her off at her friend’s house. As he handed her the scarf, he later said, he remembered the bloody clothes that were now in a bag in his truck. He threw them in a dumpster near Pete Ellis Drive.
When Griffin returned home, Greiwe could tell something was wrong with her boyfriend.
He remained silent as his mind drifted back to two nights earlier when he tried calming Belton’s fears about the “death” card. He was wrong, Griffin said he now realized, showing his knife to Greiwe and confessing to killing Belton.
“Sometimes,” he said, “death means death.”
The following morning, Griffin used Greiwe’s phone to call Belton’s, attempting to create the illusion that the pair thought the professor was still alive. Later, while Griffin remained at home with his young son, Greiwe visited her parents in Batesville, Ind. After taking a nightmare-filled nap, she told her parents everything. Greiwe’s father drove her to the Batesville Police Department where she wrote a statement. The Batesville police called the Bloomington police.
That evening, Griffin was having trouble putting his son to bed. The boy wouldn’t go to sleep, and he kept kissing his father on the cheek.
“Why are you being so sweet,” Griffin asked before noticing lights outside.
Then his door was kicked open and his windows were smashed in. A Bloomington Police tactical team stormed into the house. He was thrown onto the ground and his wrists were zip-tied in the same way Griffin was trained to detain insurgents in Iraq.
His son was taken away, and he was arrested for murder.
THREE DAYS AFTER his death, some of Belton’s former students created a blog called “Justice For Don Belton” to follow the case and dispel any malicious rumors about the professor as the manslaughter defense materialized.
In the blog’s comments section, a portrait emerged of a man who was a lover of jazz and Diana Ross, who would stop to pick a flower even when running late for class, who was starting a new, secure chapter of his life in a tenure-tracked position after years of insecurity and setbacks, including the death of his parents and a brother.
Soon after he was killed, IU Provost Karen Hanson released a statement about Belton, calling his death a “terrible loss.” The next PRIDE LGBTQ Film Festival in Bloomington was dedicated to Belton. Readings of his work took place around town. A New Years Day vigil attracted more than 100 shivering mourners who stood holding candles in the cold.
But not all members of the community were as mournful.
In a blog post titled “The Standard for Assistant Profs at the IU Dept. of English,” Kelley School of Business professor Eric Rasmusen took Belton’s murder as an opportunity to criticize the University’s hiring process, making sure to point out the races and nationalities of instructors who did not have doctoral degrees, including the dead professor. Comments on local newspapers’ websites revealed a handful of readers who couldn’t believe a former marine would have to go through a trial like this when it was an obvious case of self-defense.
Bloomington is often at odds with the state, and even county, that surrounds it. On one hand, the city prides itself for having the “fifth largest per capita population of same-sex couples” and being “one of the most progressive cities in the Midwest, both socially and politically.” On the other, it is nestled in the center of a state that has no hate crime laws and, in general, an anti-gay political environment.
In Indiana, gay men are 400 times more likely to become a victim of a hate crime than individuals associated with any other group, according to the state’s Civil Rights Commission.
Like Belton’s friends, Griffin’s lawyers were also concerned about the publicity and whose peers would end up in the jury box.
There were, in essence, two extreme narratives of the crime: that of a naive, war-damaged twenty-something manipulated and then abused by an intelligent, gay academic old enough to be his father; and that of an older, weaker writing professor who dared to look for love in the arms of a strong and subconsciously, but deeply homophobic former-marine.
The defense asked that the case be moved to another county. The request was denied.
GRIFFIN'S TRIAL BEGAN April 11, 2011. Justice for Don Belton bloggers sat among Griffin’s friends and family in the small courtroom.
As expected, Griffin and public defenders David Collins and Phyllis Emerick argued that Belton sexually assaulted Griffin Christmas night 2009 following a drunken dinner party, and it was this attack that ultimately led to the professor’s unintended death.
Under Indiana law, a sexual encounter without consent is only considered rape if it is between people of the opposite sex.
“He sexually assaulted me, whatever you want to call it,” Griffin said, his square jaw shaking and his voice catching in his throat. “Rape.”
When the argument about the sexual encounter got out of hand, Collins said, Griffin’s military training kicked in. This blinding, impulsive moment of sudden heat brought on by the alleged assault is what led to the professor’s death, he said. Griffin’s crime was not murder, the defense argued, but manslaughter.
Deputy prosecutors Darcie Winkle and Bob Miller pointed out possible holes in the defense’s argument. Griffin had parked a block away and had arrived with a knife and a change of clothes. The change of clothes was a coincidence, Griffin said. It was a dirty outfit he still had in the vehicle from a trip earlier in the week.
Griffin said his memory went blank at the two most crucial moments of the case, the prosecutors continued. Not only did he say he did not recall killing Belton, he also didn’t remember the alleged assault that led him to confront the professor.
And about that confrontation: in a moment of what the defense called “sudden heat,” Griffin stabbed the professor 21 times.
Of the multiple injuries, four of them could have been fatal, the medical examiner said. After a series of gruesome autopsy photographs were shown to illustrate the examiner’s report, Bob Miller asked him what the mechanism of death was.
Blood loss and lack of oxygen, the examiner answered.
The cause of death?
Stab wounds to the chest and stomach.
“And what was the manner of death?”
“It was homicide.”
Griffin, however, received no injuries during the struggle he described. Prior to his arrest, Griffin never went to the police with the allegations of assault, Winkle told the jurors, and he had 32 hours to decide what action he would take. The prosecution also made note of Griffin’s “arsenal” of nine knives and a gun that detectives had found at his house.
“He killed Don Belton because he was humiliated,” Winkle said in her closing arguments, referring to the sexual encounter as a night of experimental group sex that Griffin later regretted. “For some reason he thought that he should be humiliated for what happened on the 25th. He killed Don Belton because of what happened on the 25th, not what happened there in the kitchen.”
Michael Griffin, she said, is guilty of murder.
THE DELIBERATION LASTED 12 hours. When the jury returned to the courtroom, Griffin was already sitting inside, wearing a suit with his legs in shackles.
Only three of Griffin’s supporters had managed to make it back in time for the late-night verdict. His sister, Rita, and two of his friends — one, who had raced to the Justice Building from work, was still wearing a Jimmy John’s delivery uniform — sat on a hard bench in the back of the room.
The foreman handed the bailiff their verdict, and Judge Teresa Harper read it aloud: guilty of murder.
Rita began to silently sob, her hands covering her mouth. As Griffin was led out of the room, his sister rushed toward the short swinging door that separated the siblings.
“I love you, Michael,” she shrieked.
Belton’s old friend Mara Miller ran into the courtroom and looked around, her eyes darting to the jury box, the judge, the screaming sister, trying to find a sign of what was decided. A reporter mouthed the word “guilty” to her, and she slumped onto the bench where Rita Griffin was sitting a moment earlier.
“Oh,” Miller said, her hand over her chest. “Oh, thank God.”
ON MAY 17, 2011, Griffin was sentenced to 55 years in prison. He received credit for 505 days already served in the Monroe County Jail and another five years of his sentence will be served on probation.
The following March, the Court of Appeals of Indiana shaved Griffin’s sentence down to 45 years, the minimum amount for murder. Griffin’s military service and his Purple Heart helped lead to the reduced sentence, the court said, as well as “the pervasive evidence that the homicide was in response to a sexual assault.”
While it is impossible to know if Belton sexually assaulted Griffin, the “pervasive evidence” the court cites is solely Greiwe’s and Griffin’s recollections of Christmas night, both of the alleged assault and what the court considered to be hints at premeditation on Belton’s part.
“Greiwe testified that Belton, a relatively new acquaintance, told her that he had no place to go for Christmas,” the court’s opinion reads. “Before dinner, he asked to spend the night ‘if he had too much to drink.’”
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how well Belton and Griffin were acquainted. Griffin and Greiwe maintain that they had only hung out with Belton a handful of times. It is clear that Griffin did know Belton at least as far back as prior to the professor’s 53rd birthday — nearly five months before the murder.
Belton’s friends have said that the length of Griffin’s sentence is somewhat irrelevant as no number of years will resurrect the professor. The decision behind the reduced sentence, however, is a different story.
“Symbolically, what the Appeals Court did is unconscionable, and I see it as a slap in the face at the original trial judge and prosecutors and jury,” Alyce Miller said.
Griffin will now be eligible for parole in 20 years or less. He will be a younger man than Belton was at the time of his death. While Griffin’s claim that Belton sexually assaulted him did not result in a voluntary manslaughter verdict, it did result in a similar sentence.
Griffin will likely serve just five more years in prison than those who killed “Shorty” Hall – two men who were actually found guilty of manslaughter after successfully using the “gay panic defense.”
AFTER BELTON'S DEATH, the Lilly Library acquired hundreds of artifacts from his life. The collection fills 36 boxes.
The boxes contain journals, books, correspondence with authors such as James Baldwin, an alligator head clutching index cards in its jaws, old newspaper clippings, recorded interviews, sketches, photographs, a string-less violin and a cracker tin containing some squirt guns.
The boxes hold nearly all of Belton’s material life — from a sixth grade class photo, to folders of students’ work, to a jar of unspent coins. It’s the writing professor’s past, frozen present and unreached future, all locked away in a library’s annex.
Griffin will serve his sentence locked away at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.
Incidentally, Alyce Miller said, if Belton was still alive, it is likely he wouldn’t want to see Griffin imprisoned at all.
“He had very strong feelings about incarcerating people,” Miller said. “He would see Michael as a victim, too."