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Murderers' Row

Licensed to Kill
Angie Rosga

Witnessing: Director Arthur Dong (right) and cameraman Robert Shepard prepare for an interview at the Robertson Correctional Unit in Abilene, Texas.

The documentary 'Licensed to Kill' presents interviews with queer-killers

By Richard von Busack

The jurist James Goldstone, who has been investigating war crimes in the Balkans, Rwanda and his native South Africa, says he believes that torturers come up with a justification for what they've done within minutes of having committed an atrocity. The killers interviewed in Arthur Dong's searing documentary Licensed to Kill didn't even have to wait that long. Licensed to Kill is a series of shot-on-video interviews with no narration, a bare minimum of audible questions and a few bars of synthesized cello as traveling music. No frills here--but Licensed to Kill is meat for those who can stomach it.

Dong's documentary provides a nationwide survey of a half-dozen imprisoned men who have killed homosexuals or who have killed out of homosexual panic. Some of the murderers are about as you'd expect: uneducated, right-wing young men. Kenneth French, for example, used a shotgun to kill four people (old, straight, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time-type people, as it turned out) in a North Carolina restaurant; his intention was to send President Clinton a message about how he felt about the decision to recognize gays in the military.

This is bad enough, but there are moments in Licensed to Kill that are like looking into a gutter and suddenly seeing your reflection. A couple of the people here aren't monsters. Two of these killers are affable, even likable, and they're eager to tell their stories, as if murder had somehow cleared their minds. Corey Burley of Texas, who used to leave gay men robbed and naked, sums up what it was like to pull the trigger on a stranger--and it's his articulation that frightens you, not the killing.

Jay Johnson, perpetrator of the 1991 "AIDS Commission" murders in Minneapolis, is actually sort of charming. Johnson killed three gay men, one a state senator; now, he feels that his own rampage was occasioned by his loathing for being deeply closeted, HIV-positive and raised as a religious fanatic. For Johnson, being gay was "being unsuccessful at something you hate." Johnson, who now seems about as tortured about being gay as Bobby Short is, chills you because he seems so relieved. You get the impression that the fact Johnson is out of the closest is compensation for having to stay in jail for the rest of his life.

Director Arthur Dong, who himself was beaten by a pack of young men 20 years ago, is a very brave man to have put himself through this; it takes no little amount of strength to watch it. Licensed to Kill is a real achievement, especially since Dong didn't lose his perspective--he hates the crime, but not the criminals, and he pins the blame where it belongs. Admittedly, Burley and Johnson may have just been pleasant liars, giving Dong what he wanted to hear, but Dong has a point. We see an excerpt from a Twin Cities newscaster reporting the AIDS Commission killings, asking his audience rhetorically, "Who could have had hatred like this?" Dong, through news clips, refreshes your memory about a few people who harbored such hatred: Pat Robertson, Lou Sheldon, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell and, of course, Representative William Dannemeyer, whose 1989 speech to Congress claimed, "We must defeat militant homosexuality or it will defeat us." These were the theoreticians; the killers here just put the theory into practice.

Licensed to Kill (Unrated; 80 min.), a documentary by Arthur Dong.

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

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