A former sheriff was negligent for not protecting a cross-dressing woman who was murdered in the case that inspired the movie Boys Don't Cry, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled today.
In a scathing, 20-page opinion, Chief Justice John Hendry ordered a lower court to award the victim's mother $80,000 and refigure damages for emotional distress.
The ruling reversed an earlier decision that said Teena Brandon, who often dressed as a man and went by the alias Brandon Teena, was partly responsible for her own death.
Sheriff Charles Laux was more concerned with Brandon's sexuality than he was with keeping her safe after she had reported she was raped, Hendry said.
Brandon, 21, was posing as a young man and using the alias Brandon Teena in 1993 when two acquaintances, John Lotter and Marvin Nissen, learned her true gender. She told the sheriff they had raped her, and about a week later, they killed her in a Humboldt farmhouse, along with two others who witnessed her death.
‘Demeaning, Accusatory and Intimidating Treatment’
Brandon's mother, Joann Brandon, sued the sheriff for more than $350,000, saying he should have offered her daughter protective custody. The district judge awarded $17,360.
Joann Brandon's lawyer, Herb Friedman, hailed the ruling.
"It's clear that this young woman was tormented not only by the people that killed her, but tormented by a local sheriff who simply did not understand anything about her," Friedman said. "He brutalized her. That should not be condoned in a civilized society."
Attorney Richard Boucher, who represented Laux and Richardson County in the case, declined immediate comment.
In the ruling, Hendry said Laux showed indifference to the rape allegation by referring to Teena Brandon as "it" and not immediately arresting the two suspects, who had threatened to kill her if she reported the rape.
Hendry said Laux's tone on the tape-recorded interview was "demeaning, accusatory and intimidating."
Story Spawns Movie, Documentary
The 1999 movie Boys Don't Cry earned Hilary Swank an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Teena Brandon. The slaying also was the subject of a 1998 documentary, The Brandon Teena Story.
Thirty-one civil rights groups, including the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed briefs in the supreme court case.
Lotter received three death sentences for the killings and is awaiting execution in the state's electric chair. Nissen, in a deal with prosecutors, testified against Lotter and was sentenced to life in prison.
Neither was ever charged with rape.