Exile is not a punishment commonly doled out by the contemporary US justice system. Cages, not banishment, have long been the order of the day.
Not so for Luke O’Donovan. A 21-year-old queer anarchist living in Atlanta, O’Donovan learned on Monday that he will spend the next two years in a Georgia prison, and then the following eight years on probation in what can only be described as exile. While his sentence — which I will expand upon later — is peculiar, the ordeal that led to his receiving it is sadly too common.
O’Donovan was the victim of a homophobic attack by a group of men on New Year’s Eve. Having seen the young man dancing with and kissing other men at a party, a group of men numbering between five to 12 hurled homophobic slurs at O’Donovan and physically attacked him. According to his supporters, a number of witnesses saw members of the group stamp on O’Donovan’s head. The prosecution’s version of events, meanwhile, claimed that O’Donovan had been kicked out the party and returned later with a weapon and began stabbing people. O’Donovan himself released a statement Monday saying, "In an attempt to defend myself from the attack I thought could end my life I stabbed five of them, while also being stabbed three times myself." One man required surgery following the fight, and no injuries were fatal. Only O’Donovan was charged — five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Facing up to a 110-year sentence if convicted by a jury, O’Donovan agreed to a plea deal Monday. He is far from alone in foregoing a trial by jury in fear of decades behind bars if found guilty. Approximately 95 percent of all criminal cases in this country end in plea deals. Prosecutorial overreach and aggressive minimum sentencing laws mean our legal system is structured to coerce admissions of guilt. "We understand Luke’s acceptance of the plea deal and his admission of guilt as the direct result of coercion by the State," noted a statement from O’Donovan’s supporters.
As I see it, his case is the latest in a series in which LGBTQ individuals have been heavily punished by the legal system for daring to defend themselves in the face of discriminatory violence and abuse. Like CeCe McDonald, the trans woman who was jailed for fatally stabbing a man during a vicious transphobic attack on her and her friends, O’Donovan faced charges while his aggressors were deemed "victims." In July, a judge denied O’Donovan immunity from his charges on self-defense grounds.
To shed some light on where the sympathies of the Atlanta court seemed to lie, the sentencing hearing on Monday included testimonies from the mothers of the men who attacked O’Donovan. Judge Todd Markle told O’Donovan outright that he would have liked to put him in prison for more time than the plea deal entails. The prosecution argued that the word "faggot" was as "non-offensive" as teasingly calling someone a baby.
To be clear, I write here in support of O’Donovan. If you smell a whiff of bias in my depiction of this case, I haven’t gone far enough: There should be a stench of anger at a system that defends queer bashers and punishes their victims. George Zimmerman claimed self-defense in shooting dead unarmed teen Trayvon Martin and was found "not guilty." O’Donovan, himself stabbed three times, is imprisoned and sentenced to exile.
The exile stipulation in the sentence is unusual, and points again to Judge Markle’s desire to extract as much punishment as possible for O’Donovan out of the plea deal. Specifically, the stipulation demands that after he leaves prison, during O’Donovan’s eight years of probation he is banned from the state of Georgia except for one county, Screven. Since an individual on probation is also not permitted to leave the state in which he or she is sentenced, O’Donovan is effectively banished from everywhere in the world for eight years except Screven County — which, by the way, has a population of just over 15,000 and boasts "small town living." The nearest cities, Savannah and Augusta, are 60 miles away and are outside the space O’Donovan in which will be permitted to exist.
Banishment laws, archaic as they seem, are on the books only in Georgia, Tennessee, and in Washington, D.C. Some legal scholars have described such punishment as cruel and unusual. On the whole, banishment is reserved for sex offenders, or deployed in efforts to keep gang members away from their bases. The decision to remove O’Donovan from his community for years after he serves prison time smacks of cruelty. Tellingly, the judge added the exile stipulation to the deal O’Donovan and the prosecutors had reached. To use a grimly appropriate idiom, the probation condition twists the knife in O’Donovan’s wounds.
Within months of videos emerging online showing two separate incidents in Atlanta of trans women being brutally beaten — stomped on, punched, and stripped — O’Donovan’s sentencing sends an insidious and troubling message to victims of queer and trans bashing — namely, don’t fight back. It is a message deserving of firm and collective rejection.
Even facing prison and exile, O’Donovan again asserted the importance of fighting back. In a post-sentencing statement he wrote: "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."
Since the institutions of justice align with homophobia and transphobia, the fight to end this violence also entails a fight against this justice system, this prison system; in short, the state.