The Matthew Shepard paradox: How one U.S. Representative opened hate's old wounds
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The Matthew Shepard paradox: How one U.S. Representative opened hate's old wounds
by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

The latest foot-in-mouth case out of Washington D.C. was diagnosed last month when, during House debate over a bill to expand the definition of hate crimes to include violence motivated by sexual orientation, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) claimed Matthew Shepard's death was a "hoax." She said the 1998 death of Shepard wasn't a hate crime and shouldn't be used to justify a hate crimes bill.

Boo! Hiss! Step away from the podium, madam speaker from North Carolina.

The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Act passed the House after a 249-175 vote last Tuesday. The bill now heads to the Senate. If signed into law, the act would provide local police and sheriff's departments with federal resources to combat violence.

Minutes after the bill passed, the news world was abuzz with murmurs of "Rep. Foxx said what?" Foxx was blogged, Twittered, and - every politician's worst nightmare when they fuck up - YouTubed. With a double-click of a mouse, there was Foxx, in all her misinformed glory, babbling on about how what happened to Shepard has been used over and over again as an excuse for passing hate crimes bills. The worst part? Matthew's mother, Judy Shepard, looked on from the House gallery during the debate, and was forced to hear a politician call her son's brutal murder a "hoax" and an "unfortunate incident." She heard Foxx say that her son was not killed because he was Gay. "The young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery," Foxx said.

One day later, due to public outrage and behest, the congresswoman issued a statement saying she made a poor choice of words and said the killers deserved their punishment. Foxx said her comments didn't convey what she meant to say. A spokesperson for Foxx said the representative especially regrets upsetting Shepard's family.

Judy Shepard did not accept the apology. "It's apologizing for semantics but not her sentiment, her insensitivity or her ignorance," she said. "Everyone knew Matthew's murder was a hate crime, but it couldn't be prosecuted as a hate crime. We couldn't call it a hate crime. Getting this bill passed in the House brings Gay rights up to the level of equality."

So what happened?

Why was the Republican congresswoman so misinformed?

The answers are as complex as they are simple.

The attack and outcome
What we know to be fact - what is not disputed by either side of the debate - is that Matthew Shepard, an openly Gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, met Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney in a bar October 7, 1998. Shortly after midnight, McKinney and Henderson offered Matthew a ride in their car. Early that morning, Matthew was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area in Laramie, Wyoming, and left to die. McKinney and Henderson found Matthew's address and intended to rob his home. Still tied to the fence, Matthew was discovered nearly 24 hours later by bicyclist Aaron Kreifels, who at first thought Shepard was a scarecrow. At the time of the discovery Shepard was still alive, but in a coma. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Matthew never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. October 12, 1998.

Shortly thereafter, police arrested McKinney and Henderson, finding a bloody gun as well as the victim's shoes and wallet in their truck. Henderson pleaded guilty on April 5, 1999, and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty. McKinney was found guilty of felony murder. In court both men used varying rationales to defend their actions. They attempted to use a "Gay panic defense," arguing that they were driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Matthew. The prosecutor for the case charged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be Gay in order to gain Matthew's trust to rob him.

In the end, McKinney and Henderson received two consecutive life sentences.

Why we need to hate hate
For those of us in the LGBT community, the hate-motivated crime sparked a national outcry. It became one of those, "Where were you when you heard?" moments. I remember it clearly. I was 18 years old. I mean, here was this guy nearly the same age as me - we could've been friends had we gone to the same high school. Now he is dead because he was Gay. He didn't die of other things that plague young adults. It wasn't a drunk driving accident. He didn't commit suicide because he was Gay. He didn't suffer an overdose from drug use. No, it wasn't any of that at all - he was brutally beaten to death. I felt sick. Fear gave way to anger. But there was a silver lining; what McKinney and Henderson did was so despicable that it brought the need for hate crime laws to expand protection for LGBT persons into the public consciousness.

Now we enter the grey area surrounding what happened October 7, 1998 in rural Wyoming.

Matthew's story has been told in documentaries, television movies, and most notably in a play called The Laramie Project, which has become one of the most produced theater pieces in America. Although mostly accurate, there is still an air of added drama for entertainment value, which make the play an easy target for those who wish to question the content.

Where Rep. Foxx ultimately went wrong when looking for facts was the same place many others have as well: ABC's 2004 20/20 report billed as exploring "New Details Emerging in the Matthew Shepard Murder." The problem with the newsmagazine's report was that no new facts were introduced. The information relied largely on personal interviews - most of which came from people who said one thing under oath during the trial but then changed their witness account when interviewed by 20/20. In a nutshell, what you see are a bunch of people, including both McKinney and Henderson, changing their minds about what happened that night in Wyoming 10 years ago.

Foxx was right about one thing: the murder was never labeled a hate crime. But there is a reason: the congresswoman never bothered to find out why. It had nothing to do with robbery. McKinney and Henderson were not charged with a hate crime because there is no Wyoming criminal statute provided for such a charge. Under current United States federal law and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation are not prosecutable as hate crimes.

In the years following Matthew's death, his mother has become a well-known advocate for LGBT rights, particularly concerning issues relating to Gay youth. She is the prime force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, dedicated to promoting tolerance and diversity, lobbying for hate-crime legislation, and assuring Matthew's legacy will be a positive one.

That is why, Rep. Foxx, the hate crimes bill is named after Matthew.

The motive hoax
Over the years, there've been those who set out to prove Matthew Shepard was a bad boy who would still be alive if he hadn't been involved in the local drug scene or possibly made sexual advances towards McKinney and Henderson.

In the 20/20 report Rep. Foxx found to be so factual, McKinney said drugs and intent to rob Matthew are why this happened. He said he had a terrible methamphetamine addiction, and when he and Henderson saw Matthew at the bar that night, he was well dressed and looked like an easy target. After leaving the bar, the three of them got in the front seat of the pickup truck, with Henderson taking the wheel. McKinney told police that at some point Matthew reached over and grabbed his leg so in response McKinney hit him with the pistol, which he says he was "about to pull it on him anyway." McKinney asked for, and got, Matthew's wallet (containing just $30), but continued to beat him.

McKinney says he instructed Henderson to drive the truck to a secluded spot on the outskirts of Laramie so they could have time to get away. That's when they found the wooden buck fence that Matthew would be tied to. Henderson said that McKinney just kept beating Matthew over and over - all of this after the robbery had taken place. Henderson claims to have made several attempts to stop McKinney from hitting Matthew; in retaliation, McKinney allegedly hit Henderson in the face with the gun. Henderson said he retreated to the truck as McKinney continued to beat Matthew. McKinney said those last blows he dealt Matthew at the fence were the fatal blows.

So where does hate fit into all of this? Everywhere.

If McKinney and Henderson did not do this because Matthew was Gay, then why did they use the "Gay panic defense?" What enrages so many of us in the LGBT community is the rationale behind such an ignorant defense. What is unfathomable to me is how someone could even stoop to the level of saying, "A Gay man made a sexual advance towards me, and because I was high, or had a bad childhood, or was a robber, or whatever, I went temporarily insane and beat him to death." So every time I go to a straight bar and a woman tells me I have nice eyes, that somehow gives me the right to temporarily go crazy, rob her, beat the shit out of her, and all should be forgiven because, after all, I am Gay and I just can't handle someone hetero coming onto me. How despicable.

A robbery gone wrong is when you do not get any money. In this case, McKinney and Henderson got the money - all of the beating, except for the first blows dealt to Matthew inside cab of the truck, happened after the wallet was handed over. All of it - the driving to find a rural location, tying Matthew to the fence, and the continued beating - happened after the money was handed over.

Matthew Shepard begged for his life. The beating, which left him in a coma until his death, was so bad, so gruesome, the only areas on Matthew's face that were not covered in blood were those where his tears had washed the blood stains away. There were a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. He suffered a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his rights ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital signs. Does any of that sound like a robbery to you?

In court, Chasity Pasley and Kristen Price, the then-girlfriends of the accused pair, testified under oath that Henderson and McKinney plotted beforehand to rob a Gay man. Pasley and Price also said their boyfriends were not on meth the night the murder took place. Price was later charged with felony accessory after-the-fact to first-degree murder. She later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with police officers. Both McKinney and Henderson tried to have their girlfriends create an alibi for them.

So much came out after Matthew was murdered. People within McKinney's inner drug circle came forward to say McKinney was Bisexual. Price, McKinney's former girlfriend, said that she believed he was Bisexual as well - an accusation McKinney denies. It became public knowledge that Matthew was HIV-positive. Some of Matthew's classmates came forward to say he was promiscuous. People told stories of drug parties in limousines. Still, Matthew's mother fails to see how any of this adds up to why her son was murdered for any other reason than hate.

"I'm just not buying into that. There were a lot of things going on that night [October 7, 1998], and hate was one of them, and they murdered my son ultimately," she said. "Anything else we find out just doesn't change that fact."

Perhaps it was retired Police Chief of Laramie, Dave O'Malley, who said it best. "My feelings have been that initial contact was probably motivated by robbery because they needed money. What they got was $30 and a pair of shoes," said O'Malley. "Then something changed, and changed profoundly. But we will never know, because Matt's dead and I don't trust what McKinney and Henderson said."

A drug motive does not necessarily disqualify the anti-Gay motive, he said.

Both Judy Shepard and Dave O'Malley criticized the 20/20 report.

"I really don't think McKinney was in a methamphetamine-induced rage when this happened," O'Malley said. "I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they had hatred towards him for being Gay."

And so, Rep. Foxx - who led the fight against passing the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Act - succeeded in one area: showing LGBT persons the depths some will go to in order to deny our community equality.

We've all been guilty of saying the wrong thing or using a "poor choice of words." But I expect more out of legislators, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that. At the very least I expect them to be on the side of justice and equality, not rallying against a law that seeks to prevent or deter hate crimes. There was no hoax in Laramie, Wyoming 10 years ago - just ask the citizens of Laramie who are still trying to heal the damage dealt to them by the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard. There was no hoax that left Judy Shepard without her son.

But there was a hoax April 29 in Washington D.C.: Rep. Virginia Foxx pretending to know what the hell she was talking about.