Everyone in America knows the story of Matthew Shepard. Probably equally familiar are the two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who were given double life sentences for Shepard’s murder. It is the most infamous anti-gay hate crime to ever happen in America. Or is it?
A new book by journalist Stephen Jimenez called “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard” argues that the crime was not solely if it all motivated by anti-gay feelings on McKinney and Henderson’s part, but rather the result of a desperately awful series of events that center not on Matthew Shepard’s gay identity, but his and McKinney’s being part of Laramie’s extensive drug scene.
Matthew Shepard’s Murder: The Accepted Narrative
To establish how radical a departure Jimenez’s book offers from what is commonly understood about Matthew Shepard’s murder, we must first consider the accepted version of events.
On the night/early morning of 6–7 of October, 21-year-old university student Matthew Shepard, with his golden hair, elfish good looks and slight build, met two strangers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, 22 and 21 respectively, at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming.
Frequently reduced to the simple characterization of “rednecks” (and yes, the juxtaposition of their physical characteristics is important), McKinney and Henderson had, so the story goes, decided to rob a trusting and vulnerable Matthew and offered to give him a ride home.
Henderson then drove McKinney and Shepard to a remote area at the edge of a farmer’s plot of land, where they pistol-whipped Matthew Shepard before lashing him to a fence post and leaving him for dead. Shepard, still alive but in a coma, would be discovered 18 hours later by a cyclist who, in an image that would become emblematic, said he mistook Shepard for a scarecrow.
Shepard was then taken to the hospital, but his brain injuries were too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12.
The anti-gay animus behind the attack was apparently confirmed when during the subsequent murder trial, McKinney’s lawyers advanced the so-called “gay panic” defense, that Matthew Shepard had come on to McKinney and McKinney had flown into a rage related to a traumatic event of sexual abuse when he was young.
Both McKinney and Henderson made plea bargains, agreeing that anti-gay animus had played a substantial role in the murder and therein avoided the death penalty.
This was further supported by McKinney’s then-girlfriend and mother of his child, Kristen Price, who at the time granted a television interview in which she said that McKinney and Henderson “just wanted to beat [Shepard] up bad enough to teach him a lesson not to come on to straight people.”
The gay panic defense wasn’t ultimately viable and so did not play a part in the official sentence. Similarly, since Wyoming did not have a gay-inclusive hate crimes statute, and the evidence for a hate crime wasn’t technically sufficient either, McKinney and Henderson could not have been charged in that manner.
Yet, for the media and the court of public opinion, the matter was settled: Matthew Shepard’s murder was a horrific anti-gay hate crime.
In the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death, a foundation was set up in his name and his mother, Judy Shepard, became a tireless campaigner for hate crimes laws and acceptance of LGBTs, having by any standard done a laudable amount of good in the wake of such tragedy. This culminated in 2009 with the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act that gave federal recognition to anti-LGBT bias motivated crimes.
This, with a few minor variations, is likely the story that many readers are familiar with. Jimenez, however, argues something very different.
Next: Read the hidden truths Jimenez says he unearthed in the Matthew Shepard story.
Photo credit: Cover image used under fair use terms.
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