Right-wing pundits, radio hosts and bloggers are celebrating a brand new book purporting to demonstrate that Matthew Shepard’s brutal 1998 murder in Wyoming was not an anti-gay hate crime, but rather a simple drug-motivated crime fueled by crystal methamphetamine. The book is capped by the sensational, and utterly unproven, claim that Shepard had previously engaged in gay sex with his eventual murderer.
These are not new claims — the allegation that the murder was primarily drug-fueled was in fact aired during the trial of Shepard’s killers. Similarly, claims that the chief perpetrator, Aaron McKinney, had had sex with Shepard, had previously surfaced. But McKinney has angrily denied those claims, and they are based on nothing more than hearsay evidence from questionable witnesses.
The book’s central assertions, in fact, are both factually flawed and, at bottom, profoundly irrelevant. They are also essentially recycled.
Indeed, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard is the work of Stephen Jimenez, one of the producers of an ABC News “20/20” report in 2004 that was widely criticized by other journalists, gay-rights organizations and the Shepard family for its factual inaccuracies and distortions, as well as its clear bias. For instance, ABC News failed to reveal to its viewers that Jimenez was a longtime friend of the defense attorney for McKinney co-defendant Russell Henderson who, when he pitched the story to ABC producers, had already reached his sensational conclusions — long before ABC’s reporters had begun doing actual investigative work.
A number of right-wing pundits have seized upon Jimenez’s book, which was just published on Sept. 24, to claim that the much of the justification for the nation’s anti-gay hate-crime laws — including the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009 — is little more than a fabric of lies. These pundits claim that the Shepard “mythology” has been used to fuel a “grievance industry” that is based on the supposedly false notion that hate crimes, in particular anti-LGBT hate crimes, are widespread.
Even before taking on that claim, it should be noted that regardless of the realities of the Shepard case and its many complexities, it was only a single if symbolically galvanizing case.
That said, the greater reality, denied by those who complain of a “grievance industry,” is that gay people are the most targeted minority in America for hate crime. According to a detailed analysis of FBI national hate crime statistics by the Southern Poverty Law Center, gay people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as black people or Jews, more than four times as likely as Muslims, and some 14 times as likely as Latinos.
Moreover, these FBI statistics have been well known for some time to vastly underreport the actual levels of hate crime for a variety of reasons. Recent studies by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that there are more than 250,000 hate crimes in America per year — not the 6,000 to 10,000 annual total that the FBI has reported since 1995. If those studies are correct, the real level of hate crimes in America is some 25 to 40 times higher than the numbers given in the FBI’s annual reports. Assuming that that also roughly applies to anti-LGBT hate crimes, of which there were about 1,100 reported by the FBI in its most recent report, then there may really be some 32,000 to 52,000 anti-LGBT hate crimes every year.
In any event, there are serious flaws with Jimenez’s attempt to rewrite the history around Matt Shepard’s murder now, just as there were 10 years ago with ABC News’ reportage. The most obvious is in the book’s central thesis — that anti-gay animus was not involved Shepard’s murder. Or, as U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) notoriously put it in 2009 in speaking out against the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act: "[W]e know that that young man was killed in the commitment of robbery. It wasn't because he was gay. … [I]t's really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."
This conception of the nature of hate crimes is innately flawed. All bias crimes in fact are acts (including, say, robbery) which are already crimes but which are committed with a bias motive. More to the point, the presence of drugs as a factor doesn’t negate the concurrent presence of a bias motive.
Jimenez’s account omits central pieces of evidence which established clearly that it was no mere theory that McKinney had committed an anti-gay hate crime.
What we know, from multiple witness accounts at the trials, is this: Shepard, a 22-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was openly gay, and was somewhat flamboyant about it, at least by Laramie standards. Hanging out in a local bar the night of Oct. 6, he managed to attract the attention of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who were looking for someone to rob, and picked Shepard because he was gay. They told Shepard they too were gay and offered to give him a ride home in their pickup truck, and Shepard accepted.
McKinney later gave multiple, conflicting accounts of what happened that night. He told a police detective that Shepard had not made any advances toward him at the bar, but that Shepard put his hand on McKinney's leg inside the pickup, at which point McKinney told him: "Guess what? We're not gay. You're gonna get jacked." From prison, he wrote to a friend that he started beating Shepard in the car because of an even more naked advance: "When we got out to where he was living, I got ready to draw down on his ass, and all of the sudden he said he was gay and wanted a piece of me. While he was 'comming out of the closet' he grabbed my nuts and licked my ear!! Being a verry drunk homofobic [sic] I flipped out and began to pistol whip the fag with my gun, ready at hand."
Later, at trial, McKinney attempted to claim that Shepard had in fact made an advance on him at the bar, whispering a sexual proposition into his ear and then licking his lips suggestively. The humiliation he felt at the advance, he claimed, spurred a violent rage that made him want to beat Shepard. (The judge, however, struck down this testimony.)
Whatever the sequence of events and motivations, the three men wound up southeast of town in a remote area. McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard and tied him up with rope. As Shepard begged for his life, McKinney proceeded to beat him severely, ultimately pulling out a gun and pistol-whipping him about the head. They left him to die, in the freezing night air, leaned up against a wooden rail fence.
It was in that pose that two mountain bikers found him, some 12 hours later, at first thinking he was a "scarecrow" someone had propped up on the fence. (Their original description created a popular image of Shepard strung up on the fence like a crucified martyr, though in fact his arms were tied behind him and he was seated on the ground.) He was barely alive, and lingered for another five days at the Laramie hospital before he finally died of his injuries.
Jimenez’s books also substantially omits evidence that was produced at the time establishing McKinney's bias motivation. And indeed, McKinney not only did not deny the existence of this bias, he positively embraced it at trial by attempting a "gay panic" defense – claiming that he had “freaked out” at Shepard’s sexual advances and beaten him to death in anger – that ultimately failed before the jury.
There’s more. The lead investigator in the case, a detective named Rob DeBree, has repudiated the crystal meth theory. Debree told Beth Loffreda, author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of an Anti-Gay Murder, that “the murder didn’t look like any meth crime” he had seen. Debree said the attempt by McKinney's defense team to paint him as being under the influence of crystal meth had no evidence to support it: There was no evidence, he said, of recent drug use "found in the search of their residences. There was no evidence in the truck. From everything we were able to investigate, the last time they would have done meth would have been up to two to three weeks previous to that night. What the defense attempted to do was a bluff."
As Luke Brinker at Media Matter observes, it isn’t difficult to discern the motives of the right-wing pundits eager to embrace this revisionist smear of Matthew Shepard: “It's also an opportunity to assail the LGBT community's campaign for equal rights and protection from violence and bigotry,” Brinker wrote.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation, responding to the latest attack on the memory of Matt Shepard, issued a brief response: “Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law. We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead we recommit ourselves to honoring Matthew’s memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it.”