News Briefing: Jan. 23-29, 2015

News Briefing: Jan. 23-29, 2015

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Appeal filed in Shephard case

William F. Smithson has filed a notice of appeal in state Supreme Court for a new trial in the Jason Shephard murder case.

In 2008, Smithson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for Shephard’s murder.

The two men worked at Daktronics, an electronic-billboard manufacturer. In 2006, Smithson invited Shephard to his Delaware County home. There, Smithson strangled Shephard in the course of trying to rape him, according to prosecutors.

Smithson denies the allegations. He maintains that C. Bruce Covington, who was also inside Smithson’s home when Shephard was killed, wasn’t properly investigated. Covington was convicted of drug-related offenses relating to the incident, but prosecutors say he didn’t kill Shephard.

Last month, the state Superior Court denied Smithson’s request for a new trial, stating Covington was adequately investigated. Advocates for Smithson — who is openly gay — say there’s no direct evidence linking Smithson to Shephard’s strangulation. They also say homophobia played a significant role in Smithson’s prosecution.

Smithson, 49, remains incarcerated at a state prison in Huntingdon.

Settlement conference held in bullying case

A settlement conference was held this month in the case of Thomas Vandergrift, a gay man who says his nephew experienced pervasive anti-LGBT bullying while a student in the Pennsauken School District.

Vandergrift also claims that district employees retaliated against him for complaining about the alleged bullying by accusing him of molesting his nephew.

In 2012, Vandergrift filed suit in federal court, and a jury trial is expected later this year if the case isn’t settled or dismissed.

The settlement conference was held Jan. 9 in Camden before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider.

Neither side had a comment for this story.

New city attorney in brutality case

On Jan. 14, Michael R. Miller replaced Regina Lawrence as the city attorney assigned to defend the city against a police-brutality lawsuit filed by Luis Berrios 3d.

In 2010, officers were called to Berrios’ residence to quell a domestic dispute but allegedly reacted violently after realizing the dispute involved two gay men, according to Berrios’ suit.

Berrios alleges false arrest, false imprisonment, excessive force, assault and battery and other wrongdoing by police. Efforts to settle the case have been unsuccessful, and a jury trial is possible later this year.

Miller declined to comment.

“The law department generally does not comment on active litigation,” Miller said in an email.

— Timothy Cwiek

Gender-neutral dorms coming to UDel

A public university in the Philadelphia region has announced plans for a new housing option beginning fall 2015 that is being hailed as welcoming to transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

The University of Delaware all-gender housing option will offer upper-division undergraduate students who may identify as transgender, are questioning their gender identity, do not wish to prescribe to gender classifications or are uncomfortable with a same-sex roommate the chance to live in a more comfortable environment.

“We believe this option will provide a more comfortable living environment and on-campus home for some of our students,” said Kathleen Kerr, executive director of Residence Life and Housing at UDel. “The goal is to create an environment that acknowledges and respects the diverse nature and needs of our student body.”

The new all-gender housing will be available to sophomores, juniors and seniors who are at least 18. The accommodations provide suite-style double and single rooms with a shared bathroom.

The location of all gender housing will be on the Laird Campus, but the specific residence hall has not been determined yet.

— Ryan Kasley

Penn to host corrective-rape forum

The University of Pennsylvania next week will host a discussion featuring a South African LGBT activist and survivor of so-called “corrective” rape.

Ndumie Funda, founder of Luleki Sizwe — which provides support to people who have been victimized by the practice, justified by some as a way to “change” one’s sexual orientation — will be the featured speaker. The conversation, with Dr. Salamishah Tillet, will take place 5 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Terrace Room of Claudia Cohen Hall, 249 S. 36th St.

To register for the free event, visit 

— Jen Colletta


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