Would the murder of Matthew Shepard be any less reprehensible if it hadn’t been motivated by hatred of homosexuals? We hear from Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times:
…Elizabeth Vargas goes for broke tonight on an intellectually brave episode of “20/20” on ABC.
Ms. Vargas,…who replaced Barbara Walters as co-host of the show in September, has wasted no time before taking on a risky story: the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. But what’s incendiary about tonight’s program is not its topic but its argument. “20/20” takes the position that the description of this murder as an anti-gay hate crime is entirely wrong. After six years of sentimental theater, documentaries and television movies that have bolstered the hate-crime view, tonight’s program is no less than iconoclastic.
In October 1998, Mr. Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was found tied to a fence on the outskirts of town. He’d been pistol-whipped and left shoeless in near-freezing temperatures; he was almost dead. Friends who heard about his beating instantly began to tell reporters that he was gay and that his attack might have been an instance of gay-bashing.
Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were arrested. Mr. McKinney’s girlfriend told the press that he had lashed out when Mr. Shepard came onto him. As people across the country held candlelight vigils, this became the dominant refrain: Mr. Shepard was attacked because he was gay.
Then Mr. Shepard died. His funeral was picketed by chilling figures whose placards said he deserved it. Also in attendance were antiviolence activists, who wore white angel get-ups.
As Ms. Vargas says, the crime’s stakes then came through plainly: tolerance versus hate, good versus evil. The parable drawn from the crime was supplemented with beauty shots of Mr. Shepard that made him look like a frail James Dean, and arraignment photos of Mr. McKinney and Mr. Henderson that made them look like tight-lipped white power people.
The men, however, did not have ideologies. They were full-time roofers with steady girlfriends. But Mr. McKinney was also a speed freak….According to a drug buddy interviewed by Ms. Vargas, Mr. McKinney had been on a weeklong no-sleeping bender before he murdered Mr. Shepard. Mr. Henderson says on camera that he was so worried about Mr. McKinney’s drug-induced volatility that night that he hoped to keep him drinking in a local bar until he calmed down.
Newly armed with a large-frame revolver…Mr. McKinney was hoping to commit a robbery. He was full of scattershot rage. When Mr. Shepard, who was also at the bar, asked him for a ride home, he agreed, planning to steal his wallet for drug money. Mr. Henderson went along on the drive, and after Mr. McKinney beat Mr. Shepard senseless with the gun, he tied him to a fence in a remote field. The two men then took off for town, where Mr. McKinney attacked another guy he came across, cracking the man’s skull.
Mr. Henderson eventually pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping, while Mr. McKinney was convicted of felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Both men are serving double life sentences. Mr. McKinney has waived his right to appeal; Mr. Henderson hopes to file a federal appeal, claiming he was never fully advised of his rights.
Mr. McKinney now says that he and his defense team cooked up a gay-panic defense – the one that said he responded violently when hit on by a man – though it wasn’t true. Mr. McKinney’s girlfriend, the early proponent of the gay-panic story, has also recanted….
…In defending himself from charges of homophobia Mr. McKinney says, noxiously, “I have gay friends,” which gives the documentary a chance for a bravura transition.
“One of McKinney’s gay friends may have been Matthew Shepard,” Ms. Vargas says in voice-over.
What? They knew each other?
Mr. McKinney denies it to Ms. Vargas, but “20/20” then produces several interviews with people who had seen the men together. And then a bomb is dropped.
Mr. O’Connor [a character who knew Shepard and McKinney], volunteers that Mr. McKinney didn’t hate gays because “I know of an instance where he had a three-way – two guys and one girl at a party, an all-nighter.” After confirming that Mr. McKinney had had sex with the man of the trio, Ms. Vargas asks Mr. O’Connor how he knows about such an intimate experience.
“Because he did it with me,” the limo driver says.
Now what does this prove? That Mr. McKinney was bisexual, as his girlfriend goes on to confirm? (Mr. McKinney denies that he has ever had sex with a man.) Does that mean he wasn’t homophobic? And as for the news about Mr. Shepard – so what if he did meth or had H.I.V.?
Mr. Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy, are interviewed here about their son’s character; they have since taken the position that the documentary is filled with errors.
None of this, as Ms. Vargas points out, changes the horror of the murder, or the inspiration and awareness that people gained from the widespread parable version of the event. But getting the truth – in ABC’s revisionist investigation, which seeks to overturn the powerful and canonical version of the facts and meaning of this crime – is worthwhile, as it thickens the description and adds to the mystery of what happened that night in Laramie.
The doubts about McKinney’s motivation and the final, gratuitous, paragraph notwithstanding, it is evident that Matthew Shepard’s murder — like the school shootings at Columbine and elsewhere — was used cynically by advocates of an agenda. That agenda was gay rights in the Shepard case, whereas it was gun control in the school-shooting cases.