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Why Wasn’t Marvin Gaye’s Father Convicted in His Death?

Photo Credit: Rob Verhorst / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Rob Verhorst / Getty Images

On April 1, 1984, musician Marvin Gaye was fatally shot by his own father. Although Marvin Gaye Sr. shot his son at point-blank range, the court granted him a plea bargain. Here, we break down Marvin Gaye’s death and look into why his father was never punished for the death of his son.

Tumultuous relationship

Marvin Gaye 1973
Marvin Gaye circa 1973. (Photo Credit: Jim Britt/ Getty Images)

Marvin Gaye always had a strained relationship with his father. Marvin Gaye Sr. was a violent alcoholic who tended to take his anger out on his children – particularly Marvin.

Marvin Gaye had previously described living in his father’s house as “living with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel, and all-powerful king.” Throughout his childhood, Marvin Gaye suffered abuse at the hands of his father nearly every day. As Marvin recounted, “by the time I was twelve, there wasn’t an inch of my body that hadn’t been bruised and beaten by him.”

Marvin Gaye with his Grammy
Marvin Gaye with a Grammy he won in 1983. (Photo Credit: Armando Gallo. Getty Images)

Even Marvin’s mother, Alberta Gaye, knew that her husband hated her son. “my husband never wanted Marvin, and he never liked him. He used to say he didn’t think he was really his child. I told him that was nonsense. He knew Marvin was his. But for some reason, he didn’t love Marvin, and what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either.”

Despite being a successful musician, Marvin Gaye moved back into his parents’ home in late 1983. At this time, Marvin Gaye was struggling with debt, depression, and addiction. However, almost as soon as Marvin moved back home, his father once again turned violent toward him.

The murder of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye and his parents
Marvin Gaye with his parents, Marvin Gaye Sr., and Alberta Gay, circa 1972. (Photo Credit: The Washington Post/ Getty Images)

On Christmas Day, 1983, Marvin Gaye had given his father a Smith & Wesson .38 Special pistol so that he could protect himself and his wife from any potential intruders. It was this same pistol that would eventually kill Marvin.

In the days preceding Marvin’s death, his parents had been fighting. Marvin was becoming increasingly upset that his father was taking his anger out on his mother, who had just had kidney surgery. Eventually, Marvin demanded that Marvin Gaye Sr. leave Alberta alone, which eventually escalated into a physical fight between father and son.

Alberta Gaye with family at Marvin Gaye's funeral
Alberta Gaye with family during Funeral Service for Marvin Gaye at Forest Lawn Mortuary in Hollywood, California. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella/ Getty Images)

On April 1, 1984, Alberta was trying to calm Marvin down in his bedroom when his father barged into the room and shot Marvin in the chest with the .38 Special pistol Marvin had bought him.

The first shot was enough to kill Marvin, but after he fell to the ground, Gaye Sr. approached his injured son and shot him again at point-blank range.

Alberta ran to her younger son Frankie, who lived in a guest house on the property. Frankie was the first one to enter the scene just after Marvin had been shot. Later, Frankie would write about Marvin’s final minutes and about how Marvin told him, “I got what I wanted… I couldn’t do it myself so I made him do it.”

Aftermath and trial

Paul Bearers at Marvin Gaye's funeral
Paul Bearers for Marvin Gaye’s funeral service, April 5, 1984. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella/ Getty Images)

Marvin Gaye was pronounced dead at 1:01 pm. He was 44. When police arrived at the house, Marvin Gaye Sr. was sitting on the porch holding the gun in his hand. When the police asked Gaye Sr. if he loved his son, he replied, “Let’s say I didn’t dislike him.”

Gaye Sr. pleaded innocent to the murder charge. In a jail cell interview before his trial, Gaye Sr. said he “pulled the trigger,” but thought that the weapon was loaded with BBs or blanks. He said that the “first shot didn’t seem to bother him. He put his hand up to his face like he’d been hit with a BB. And then I fired again.”

Funeral service of Marvin Gate
Funeral of Marvin Gaye. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella/ Getty Images)

In his defense, Gaye Sr. stated that Marvin had beaten him violently during the argument and before the shooting began. Gaye Sr. claimed that his son “took me from the back and he grabbed me and slung me to the floor and he started beating me, kicking me. He kicked me everywhere he could kick me.”

However, police officers quickly disputed these claims that Gaye was violently beaten after they found no indication of bruises on his head or any physical indication that he had been kicked or punched multiple times.

Whatever the reason was for Gaye Sr. killing his son, he appeared to be remorseful after the fact, stating, “I just didn’t believe it. I thought he was kidding me. I said, ‘Oh God of mercy. Oh. Oh. Oh.’ It just shocked me. I went to pieces, just cold. I just sit there and I didn’t know what to do, just sitting there like a mummy.”

Marvin Gay Sr. at trial
Marvin Gaye Sr. in court. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

After reviewing the documents associated with the murder, including the amount of drugs Gaye had in his system, the judge presiding over the case agreed to grant Marvin Gaye Sr. a plea bargain. He pleaded no contest to the charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation with no jail time.

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Gaye Sr. told the court, “If I could bring him back I would. I was afraid of me. I thought I was going to get hurt. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m really sorry for everything that happened. I loved him. I wish he could step through this door right now. I’m paying the price now.”

Despite his remorse, the world lost one of its best musicians at the hands of his father. Marvin Gaye Sr. passed away on October 10, 1998.

Madeline Hiltz

Maddy Hiltz is someone who loves all things history. She received her Bachelors of Arts in history and her Master’s of Arts degree in history both from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis examined menstrual education in Victorian England. She is passionate about Princess Diana, the Titanic, the Romanovs, and Egypt amongst other things.

In her spare time, Maddy loves playing volleyball, running, walking, and biking, although when she wants to be lazy she loves to read a good thriller. She loves spending quality time with her friends, family, and puppy Luna!