Death without justice: after their teen son committed suicide in a panic, Pennsylvania parents sued the police who’d threatened to out him. The resulting court case is a landmark for gay and lesbian privacy rights – Court – Brief Article
Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos
Minersville, Pa., isn’t known for much except its nearby glowing bronze memorial to the countless miners who’ve died in dark shafts. But in this unlikely setting, one local teenager’s suicide has fueled the first federal protections of privacy for gay men and lesbians far beyond Minersville’s coal-filled hills.
Marcus Wayman was only 18 years old on April 18, 1997, when local police officers found him and 17-year-old Matthew Adamik parked in a car near a beer distributorship.
The officers–Scott Willinsky, who is the son of retired police chief Joseph Willinsky, and Thomas Hoban–took the boys into the station on charges of underage drinking. But because Adamik was carrying two condoms, the officers also asked the teens if they were “queer,” according to Adamik’s testimony.
Scott Willinsky later testified that both boys conceded under questioning at the time that they were stopped in the car to have sex, although Adamik disputes making the statement.
Regardless of the boys’ true sexual orientation, Adamik testified that Willinsky told Wayman that if Wayman didn’t tell his stepgrandfather he was gay, Willinsky would do it himself.
Early that morning Hoban dropped Wayman off at the home his family was sharing with his stepgrandfather. And sometime around 6 A.M., Wayman, a football player who had about a month of school left until graduation, found the keys to the family’s gun cabinet. He then took out a revolver, held it up to his face, and fired. He missed, however, so he aimed and fired again. With the second shot, he was dead.
“I’m sorry, Grandpa, I found my future,” Wayman wrote in a suicide note. “I won’t let everyone’s life be ruined by mine.”
On November 7 a federal jury in nearby Allentown cleared Willinsky, Hoban, and Willinsky’s father of charges that they had violated Wayman’s constitutional right to privacy by threatening to out him.
The verdict stunned Wayman’s family and friends. “I really don’t know what the jury was thinking,” Wayman’s mother, Madonna Sterling, told The Advocate a few days after the acquittal. “There was so much testimony from people who had nothing to gain by lying. We’re all pretty much in shock.”
Sterling joined Wayman’s other family members and friends–including the young woman who was his girlfriend at the time of his death–in testifying during the trial that Wayman was heterosexual. They argued that Wayman feared that the accusation would have cost his family their home with his stepgrandfather. It was a possibility Wayman feared enough to end his life.
The fact that Wayman grew up with his stepfather, Mark Sterling, a former police officer, and respected the police’s authority helped his mother understand his desperation. “If they say they’re going to do something, you’d better believe it,” she says. “I think at the time he thought, who was going to believe him? If a police officer says this, it must be true.”
Despite the family’s anguish over the acquittal of the officers, Wayman’s case has shed new light on the definition of privacy and how it relates to sexual orientation.
When the family first filed suit in 1998, the police officers moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the constitutional right to privacy did not include sexuality. Even if there were such a right, they said, they could not have been expected to know it at the time.
The appeal went to the third U.S. circuit court of appeals in Philadelphia, which a year ago decided against the officers’ claim–ruling that a person’s constitutional right to privacy also includes protection of their sexual orientation–clearing the way for the trial in Allentown.
“It is difficult to imagine a more private matter than one’s sexuality, and a less likely probability that the government would have a legitimate interest in [its] disclosure,” the court wrote in its 2-1 ruling.
The court added that threatening to disclose the information was tantamount to a privacy violation “because the security of one’s privacy has been compromised by the threat.”
Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that ever since the ruling, the ACLU has been trying to educate school officials, social workers, and counselors about it. He says many of them feel that they have a duty to share with the parents when students discuss their sexual orientation with them.
In light of the circuit court’s clear interpretation of the law, he says, the federal trial jury in Allentown must have decided that Willinsky never actually thr0atened Wayman and therefore did not violate his right to privacy. The acquitted officers do not have listed telephone numbers and could not be reached for comment.
Attorney David Rudovsky, who represents the Sterlings, filed a motion November 13 for a new trial, which he and others close to the case admit is a long shot at best. “We’re asking the judge for a new trial,” he says. “We’re arguing that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, that the jury just made a very bad mistake.” He expects the judge’s decision in about a month.
In the meantime, Wayman’s mother will keep digging for a vein of hope amid her mountain of disappointment. “You have to believe that you’ll find justice somewhere down the line,” Sterling says. “I have to hold on to that hope; otherwise it’s just too much to bear.”
Stefanakos is a former reporter for Newsweek magazine.
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