LGBTQ history — The murder of Sakia Gunn was 20 years ago today

Sakia Gunn
Sakia Gunn file photo

Sakia Gunn (May 26, 1987 – May 11, 2003) was a 15-year-old African American lesbian who was murdered in what has been deemed a hate crime in Newark. Richard McCullough was charged with her death and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The murder

On the night of May 11, 2003, Gunn was returning from a night out in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, with her friends. While waiting for the New Jersey Transit bus at the corner of Broad and Market Streets in downtown Newark, Gunn and her friends were propositioned by two men. The girls rejected their advances and declared themselves to be lesbians. The men attacked; Gunn fought back, and one of the men, Richard McCullough, stabbed her in the chest. Both men immediately fled the scene in their vehicle. After one of Gunn’s friends flagged down a passing driver, she was taken to nearby University Hospital, where she died.

McCullough, who turned himself in to authorities several days later, was arrested in connection with the crime on May 16, 2003. In a plea bargain, the murder charges were dropped and, on March 3, 2005, McCullough pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation, claiming, at one point, that Gunn died after she “ran into his knife”.

On April 21, 2005, McCullough was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

How did the media cover the murder?

Gunn’s death was the subject of a segment on CNN and a two-day series in the Washington Post in October 2004 by Anne Hull, who spent months reporting on the lives of young lesbians in Newark in the aftermath of the hate crime that killed their friend. The series was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 2005. In 2008 a documentary was released about Gunn’s murder, titled Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project.

Using the LexisNexis database, Kim Pearson, a professor at The College of New Jersey compared the media coverage of Sakia Gunn’s death to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. More than 650 stories were found in major newspapers about Shepard’s murder, compared to 21 articles about Gunn’s murder in the subsequent seven months.

Pearson noted that not only were Shepard’s attackers tried and convicted during this period, but that it took nearly that long for Gunn’s attacker to be indicted.

How did the LGBTQ community respond to the murder?

Gunn’s death sparked outrage from the Newark LGBTQ community. The community, in conjunction with GLAAD and AVP, rallied the mayor’s office and requested a long list of actions. Among the many demands, the groups asked for the establishment of a gay and lesbian community center. They also requested that police officers patrol the Newark Penn Station/Broad Street corridor 24-hours a day, the creation of an LGBT advisory council to the mayor, and that the school board be held accountable for the lack of concern and compassion when dealing with students at Westside High School (which Gunn attended) immediately following the murder.

The Newark Pride Alliance, an LGBT advocacy group, was founded in the wake of Gunn’s murder. And many other changes have happened in Newark in the 20 years since.