At the outset, prosecutors presented it as a slam-dunk case of murder: Brandon McInerney, driven by homophobic rage, shot a gay classmate in the back of the head during a school class.
But ultimately, after an eight-week trial and six days of deliberations, jurors could not decide if the slaying was murder or manslaughter.
A judge declared a mistrial Thursday after jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision on the degree of Brandon McInerney's guilt for killing 15-year-old Larry King.
The nine-woman, three-man panel said they took a series of votes _ the last one with seven in favor of voluntary manslaughter and five jurors supporting either first-degree or second-degree murder.
Prosecutors must now decide whether to re-file murder and hate crime charges against McInerney, now 17 but 14 at the time of the killing, who was tried as an adult. They had offered a deal of 25 years to life if he pleaded guilty, but his lawyers passed. A first-degree murder conviction carried a maximum sentenced of more than 50 years in prison.
King's family rushed out of the courtroom after the judge declared a mistrial. They looked horrified and confused and declined comment as sheriff's deputies escorted them to an elevator.
Outside court, McInerney's friends said prosecutors tried to sensationalize the case by calling it a hate crime by a budding white supremacist.
"This should have never gone to trial," family friend Craig Adams said. "The fact they pushed him to try him as an adult was the real crime."
One juror, who identified himself only as juror no. 10, told The Associated Press that several members of the panel thought McInerney should never have been tried as an adult.
"I don't think so," the juror said, when asked if the district attorney should have pursued an adult prosecution. "He was 14. Just trying to get in the head of a 14 year old (is hard.)"
Ventura County prosecutor Maeve Fox did not comment after the trial. She contended McInerney embraced a white supremacist philosophy that sees homosexuality as an abomination. Police found Nazi-inspired drawings and artifacts at his house, and a white supremacist expert testified the hate-filled ideology was the reason for the killing.
Fox also argued the attack was premeditated, noting at least six people heard McInerney make threats against King in the days leading to the shooting.
She said McInerney told a psychologist hired by defense lawyers that he wanted to kill King after he passed McInerney in a school hallway and said, "What's up, baby?"
"He's basically confessed to first-degree murder in this case," Fox said during her closing argument.
Defense attorneys acknowledged McInerney was the shooter but explained that he had reached an emotional breaking point after King made repeated, unwanted sexual advances. McInerney snapped when he heard moments before the shooting that King wanted to change his name to Latisha, the lawyers said.
The defense psychologist said he was in a dissociative state _ acting without thinking _ when he pulled the trigger at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, a city about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
McInerney's lawyers also said he suffered physical abuse at home from his father, who has since died, and didn't receive the proper supervision that would have kept him out of trouble. They said the Nazi imagery was part of a school project on tolerance.
"He is guilty and he should be held responsible, but he is not a murderer. He is not a white supremacist," defense attorney Scott Wippert said during his closing argument. "He is a 14-year-old child who didn't know what to do and had no one to guide him."
Outside court, Wippert said jurors had told him they weren't convinced by prosecutors' assertions the killing was a hate crime.
"We are quite confident that none of the jurors believed this was a hate crime," he said. "This was a difficult decision for all of them."
McInerney did not take the stand during the nine-week trial. To find McInerney guilty of voluntary manslaughter, jurors had to find him not guilty of first- and second-degree murder. They began deliberating last Friday.
The school administration has been accused of being more concerned about defending King's civil rights than recognizing that his behavior and what he wore _ high heels, makeup and feminine clothing _ made other students uncomfortable.
The shooting roiled gay-rights advocates and parents in Oxnard. They wondered why school officials hadn't done more to stop the harassment against King by students, including McInerney.
The case labored in the court system for more than three years as McInerney's lawyers sought numerous delays. Judge Charles Campbell was eventually persuaded to move the trial from Ventura County to neighboring Los Angeles County because of extensive news coverage that threatened to bias jurors.
King's family sued the school district for failing to protect their son. The lawsuit is pending.
Associated Press writer Greg Risling contributed to this report.
Watkins can be reached at http://twitter.com/thomaswatkins