Luke O’Donovan and the Criminalization of Self-Defense
My name is Luke O’Donovan. In the early morning of January 1st, 2013, I was attacked by a group of men at a party because of my sexuality. In an attempt to defend myself from the attack I thought could end my life I stabbed 5 of them, while also being stabbed 3 times myself. It is regrettable that anyone had to come to harm, but given the choice of whether to lose my life to a hateful attack or fight for the chance to live, I will always choose the ferocious refusal to go quietly into the night. This refusal was not fueled by hate for my attackers, but by my love for life. It is this passion for life that came in conflict with my attackers, and this same passion that was arrested by the cops and is being punished by the courts. It is this passion that they are trying to chain, to cage, to rehabilitate me away from, but it is this passion that will pull my gaze – always forward – through the dark. I can already glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll be home soon.
On New Year’s Day in 2013, I was halfway across the world when I started receiving frantic messages from friends. Our mutual friend Luke was in an Atlanta jail,they said, being held without bond. He wasn’t my only friend to get arrested that week, and it’s not unusual for me to receive messages that someone I care about is going into or getting out of jail. But with Luke it felt different. The Atlanta metro media was circulating incendiary articles detailing a “stabbing rampage” that allegedly occurred on New Year’s Eve. Next to each article was a picture of our friend’s face, bruised and broken.
As we would soon learn, Luke was not, in fact, a “lunatic stabber”, but had fiercely defended himself in a terrifying situation. As he has been forced to retell countless times, Luke was at a New Year’s Eve party in Atlanta when he was called a faggot and attacked by a group of men, who continued to repeatedly call him a faggot while beating him. He defended himself using a pocket knife, and stabbed five of them. Luke was stabbed three times in the back that night, but the cops, courts, and their spokespeople in the media wrote off those wounds as “cuts” in what can only be understood as an attempt to skew the details of the event in favor of who they deemed to be victims. Luke was arrested while in the hospital being treated for the wounds he had obtained. Immediately upon recovery he was transported to the Fulton County Jail.
Luke was released in mid-January on a $35,000 bond and banned from the Northeast metropolitan corridor of Atlanta (a large, ambiguous swath of the city) because he was considered a threat to his attackers. He was forced to relocate his housing and work, and navigate daily life in a sprawling metropolis around this exile. It wasn’t until September, eight months after he was attacked, that the D.A. moved forward with an indictment after a “long investigation” into the incident. Unsurprisingly, the investigation into Luke’s attack was opened and closed while he was locked up inside the county jail and he was never interviewed about what happened.
Another year passed. In my town and other places around the country, people threw benefit dance parties in support of Luke. Meanwhile Luke’s friends in Atlanta raised thousands of dollars to help cover the cost of his attorney. But it all felt surreal, like we were raising money for something that had already passed, and that our friend was already out of the shit. I had to constantly remind myself that the most difficult time was yet to come. Even though the D.A. made it clear that she wanted to prosecute to the full extent of her power, everyone remained hopeful for the self-defense immunity hearing. A dismissal seemed within arm’s reach.
This summer arrived and bureaucracy crept along. After many postponements, Luke’s immunity hearing was finally set for July 1st. A self-defense immunity hearing is a chance for the defendant to present their claim of self-defense in front of a judge instead of a jury. However, unlike a normal jury trial where the burden of proof is on the prosecution (hence the myth “innocent until proven guilty”), in an immunity hearing the defense must prove the case for the defendant’s self-defense.
On July 1st, Luke and dozens of friends filled the courthouse for the first time. The defense made a strong case, and was able to show gross inconsistencies in the attackers’ stories. The witnesses admitted to being drunk that night, were unable to recall their own testimonies, and gave conflicting stories of everything that happened. The leading investigator of the event, who reported Luke’s stab wounds as “cuts,” could give no explanation as to why she reported them differently than the other stab wounds. Despite the defense’s strong cross-examinations, the judge denied Luke a dismissal on the grounds of self-defense.
While everyone knew that the hearing might not end up in Luke’s favor, no one was prepared for the prosecution stooping so low to delegitimize and vilify Luke. As friends reported after the hearing,
They made a point of asking every witness whether or not the term “faggot” was offensive, or just a synonym for other “non-offensive” terms like “pussies or bitches,” and later used the word “nigger” as another example of a “non-offensive” term. The prosecuting attorney accused Luke, with no evidence or witnesses of any kind, of having stabbed a homeless person. To try to justify the attempted murder charge, the prosecution also claimed that Luke had held workshops on knife skills and “kill zones.”
Sitting and listening to the state and their collaborators sling unfounded allegations at your friends and not be able to do anything is debasing to say the least. It took me getting forcefully escorted out of court once by federal marshals to learn that if you’re going to go support your friends, (unless everyone is going to go crazy,) it’s pretty much a sit-up-straight-shut-up-and-act-later situation every time.
The trial date was set for early August, and Luke had to face the worst-case scenario of potentially being sentenced to over a 100 years in prison for five acts of aggravated assault and one count of attempted murder. No one in the court system likes to go to trial. It’s expensive and it requires a lot of labor from both the defense and the state. In big ugly trials, judges often tell prosecutors and defenders that if they can come to a negotiated plea deal, the judge will agree to accept their terms. Through July, Luke had to make the difficult decision of whether to accept a plea deal that was negotiated between his lawyer and the prosecutors, or whether he would continue to plead not-guilty and face trial by jury.
Waiting for an unknown is an experience that warps time – in the time of the courts, they make you wait for years and then it’s all over in a matter of days. Years ago, a friend of mine, who took a non-cooperating plea deal for a federal conspiracy charge, said that plea deals work so well for the government because the prospect of not knowing your fate in the hands of a jury is worse than accepting a known coercion. You feel like you have control over your own demise, rather than giving it over to an unknown.
I decided to go down to Atlanta the first week of August not knowing whether I was going to Luke’s trial or his plea hearing. It didn’t matter to me because I knew I was in full support of him either way. But when I found out that Luke intended to accept the negotiated plea and would be taken into custody upon acceptance of the deal, I reminded myself that my service job is insignificant and decided to make it down as soon as possible. My friend Nikki and I drove overnight to Atlanta after I got off work that Sunday. We arrived at five a.m. and recognized the house immediately by the friends on the porch who, half-awake, stumbled to greet us. I got a few hours of sleep before it was time to begin the 24-hour countdown to Luke’s court-date on Tuesday morning.
The chaos was immediate. There were rarely less than thirty friends around Luke, everyone taking turns to get one-on-one time with him and with each other. No one, least of all Luke, wanted our remaining time to feel like a funeral. The best of our middle school-era Atlanta rap was on blast constantly, interrupted in the later hours by Luke singing IRA songs in his underwear. The intermittent crying and dancing reflected the joyous sadness felt by everyone who was there. Older friends were reminded of convergences – massive shared meals, co-sleeping, and the alternating of serious strategizing, partying, and processing.
One of Luke’s only demands before going in on Tuesday was that everyone stay up with him as late as they could. I took a nap in the room where everyone was hanging out in so that I could still feel a part of everything. A few minutes before sunrise, Luke woke us up and asked people to join him on the roof to watch the sun come up before getting dressed for court. I sat on the roof next to Luke while we watched the sky turn light grey. The sun never really rose that morning, so we waited until it was time to start getting ready.
Soon, every room in the house was full of young people putting on their court drag. We helped each other pick outfits to make sure we’d all look both fresh and respectable – affects not to be undervalued when sending a friend off to prison. We emerged on the streets of downtown Atlanta looking like we were going to a nighttime service at a gay church, with Luke at the front in a grey three-piece suit. Walking fifty deep, we winded our way towards the Justice Center in silence. Outside of the entrance we all huddled around Luke and chanted his name, laying hands on him and one another until we were dispersed by court cops.
In an incredible feat of punctuality, we actually arrived before the courthouse opened. After the long lines of security, we made it up to the floor where Luke’s hearing was to be held. There were so many of us that the court officers kept insisting we were blocking the doors and walkways, constantly harassing and herding us. Luke’s family and friends from Atlanta filed in first and those of us from afar filled the remaining seats. Every row in the courtroom was full of people that loved Luke – except the last one, where three of Luke’s attacker and their families sat.
The clerks and figures of justice took their places and pushed papers around until the Judge walked in. As it goes, we stood up and sat back down. Someone who represented the state of Georgia read to the Judge the official version of the event on New Year’s Eve. This was the first time many of us from out of town realized that the state was asking Luke to surrender to a completely false narrative, pieced together from embellished stories by a bunch of drunk dudes. After the reading, the prosecutor announced that the “victims” and their families would like to read their statements to request that the judge not accept the negotiated plea and add more time to Luke’s sentence.
Everyone knew that the attackers and their families would likely make victim impact statements that day in front of the judge. We prepared as best we could for this – talking openly about how that would feel in court and how we could support each other afterwards, having had to listen to those stories. But in the courtroom, Luke was separated from us and all we had were our eyes to communicate that they couldn’t change our minds and that we loved him.
Two of the men that attacked Luke were brothers and they read their statements first. Their accounts mentioned nothing of the event itself and sounded more like an insurance claim. They described the bodily trauma the stab wounds had caused, focusing on the loss of fluids and time. Granted, listening to people go through their injuries in explicit and graphic detail was difficult for me, although less emotionally so and more as a reminder of how fragile bodies can be. It seemed like their logic was that, because they lost time from sustaining stab wounds, Luke should lose more years of his life in prison for inflicting them. The third attacker to speak claimed that he was not homophobic because he had “lots of homosexual friends and family members”. This was the first of a series of claims voiced to both clear the attackers’ names and make Luke look like a liar.
The mothers of the men who spoke also took the opportunity to plea for harsher punishment for Luke. Cheryl Mainor spoke last. Rather than focusing on the experience of her son, she maintained that Luke, his family, and his supporters should be ashamed for “using” the language of a hate crime in order to weigh upon the heartstrings of the public. She was clear to emphasize that the false allegations of her son participating in a homophobic attack had ruined her family’s reputation. She went on to expose the fact that, after New Year’s, she talked to representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center and other media groups, urging them to drop their stories because they weren’t true. At the height of her dog and pony show, she yelled, “These kids here think they’re activists, I’m an activist – it’s what I do every day.”
Effectively, Cheryl Mainor admitted to silencing a media investigation into Luke’s attack by taking advantage of her position as vice-president of sales and marketing for a powerful media group in Chicago. But this is nothing new. Victims of state and societal violence are often slandered publicly as part of a media-incited mass hysteria. The unconscious motivation being to absolve everyone’s guilt, to reconcile the mass incarceration and assassination of black men and of queers, trans folks, and women who defend themselves. Some perform slandering in more subtle ways, like Cheryl Mainor, who uses identity politics to argue that some people are true victims of hate crimes and others are charlatans, trying to “use” their identity to get away with crimes.
Luke’s lawyer and Luke were finally able to speak at the end of the proceedings, before it was time for Luke to formally accept his plea. Luke’s defender gave a sincere oration about what it was like to grow up Jewish in an all-Christian neighborhood and the discrimination he had experienced, using this to advance that the Judge has no idea what it’s like for someone like Luke to be called a “faggot” – even being so brave as to tell the Judge that he’s probably never experienced real discomfort about his social position or identity.
If the emotional and political deadlock was overwhelming Luke, he hid it well when making his statement in front of the Judge, managing to maintain incredible dignity despite all of the stress. Luke expressed that he often wishes things could have been different that night and that he did not have to hurt anyone, but that he did what he had to do to stay alive.
Finally it was time for the court to read the conditions of Luke’s plea and for Luke to verbally accept them. We all had a moment of panic when the clerk reminded Luke that the judge does not have to agree on the terms of the plea and may choose to sentence the defendant as he deems appropriate. Judge Markel had clearly been affected by the victim impact statements and admitted that he wished he hadn’t previously agreed to the negotiation; he believed Luke deserved a harsher sentence. It was crystal clear whose side the judge had been on all along, and that he simply did not want to make things politically messy for himself by retracting the agreement.
The final ritual of the plea hearing proceedings began. The judge read each condition of Luke’s sentencing aloud, pausing for Luke to verbally agree to them one by one. He detailed that Luke was receiving a sentence of ten years, serving two, of which the remaining eight were to be served on probation. He indicated that he would not let up on Luke’s probation and that Luke would have to report weekly to his parole officer and submit to weekly drug and alcohol screenings for eight years. He also reminded Luke that, while on probation, he could not affiliate with other convicted felons or own any weapons. In the final moment, as the marshals were approaching to take Luke away, the Judge read the last term of Luke’s sentence. He announced that Luke was to be banished from the State of Georgia except for Screvens County. Everyone gasped, tears started streaming down, and we all looked at one another in despair trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. Luke looked at all of us and at his lawyer, who tried to reassure him that it would be okay. The judge reminded Luke that if at any point he wanted to renounce the conditions of his sentence and ask for a trial by jury, he still had time. Luke was forced to agree in hopes that it would get worked out to avoid a trial with a judge who clearly had it out for him.
We watched Luke get taken away in handcuffs. Whispers of love and strength were uttered as he walked out of the room. We were herded out row by row, and immediately pushed out of the area by the court officers, who appeared terrified and disgusted by our crowd. There was an immense outpour of physical emotions: sobbing, holding one another, some were even on the ground. But even Luke’s family wasn’t allowed to grieve together before the court cops yelled at everyone to get out of the building. Eventually we all made it outside. Standing around the doors of the courthouse in silence, trying to allow one another to feel desperate and pissed and awful while wanting to get out of view from and harassment by the pigs.
Luke is now being processed at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, Georgia. There he will be run through a series of tests and interviews that will determine what facility he is to be placed at the for the next two years. Like all incarcerated people, the state is in control of when and where he will be moved to for the duration of his time inside.
He has been able to talk to his friends and family frequently. Thousands of postcards have been sent to Judge Markel from across the country to urge that he remove the sadistic and archaic banishment from Luke’s sentencing. This has had somewhat of an impact on the judge because a few weeks ago he brought Luke back into court to correct the initial banishment, admitting that it was technically illegitimate. Luke is now banished to the southern Georgia judicial district, a larger territory than Screvens County. Judge Markel also mentioned that he would be open to getting Luke’s probation transferred to another state, so that Luke does not have to be banished solely to the southern district and will be able to return to Georgia after he has completed probation.
Luke’s family and friends have been incredible. The two days following the hearing, I alternated between meetings for long-term support of Luke, grieving with friends about Luke being held hostage, and resting. I left Atlanta strengthened by my experience with friends who care so deeply for one another. I know they really meant it when they promised one another to try and make a home and life that Luke would be proud to return to in two years. We acknowledged that, in adding the banishment clause to Luke’s sentence, the state obviously wanted to sever Luke’s support system and force him out of the area; it was everyone’s desire to prove that forcibly relocating a friend won’t break those ties.
Here’s a list of solidarity actions that have taken place in support of Luke: