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Context of 'October 9, 1998 and After: Question of ‘Hate Crime’ Surrounds Murder of Gay Student'

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The murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After) triggers a national discussion about hate crimes, centering on the question of whether Shepard’s murder should be classified as such. Shortly after Shepard’s murder, his friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout tell reporters that Shepard may have been killed because of his homosexuality. “I know in the core of my heart it happened because he revealed he was gay,” Boulden tells a reporter. “And it’s chilling. They targeted him because he was gay.” Boulden and Trout also speak with county law enforcement officials. Kristen Price, the girlfriend of one of Shepard’s assailants, Aaron McKinney, cooperates with police after being charged with being an accessory to the murder (the charges are later reduced); she tells them that McKinney reacted violently to Shepard’s alleged advances. Later, Price will recant that part of her story and say that McKinney’s motive was to rob Shepard. In 2004 she will say: “I don’t think it was a hate crime at all. I never did.” Former Laramie police detective Ben Fritzen will agree, saying: “Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide.… If it wasn’t Shepard, they would have found another easy target. What it came down to really is drugs and money and two punks that were out looking for it.” McKinney will tell an ABC News reporter: “I would say it wasn’t a hate crime. All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.” He will explain the excessively savage beating he delivered to Shepard as triggered by his methamphetamine abuse. Others disagree. In 1999, Sergeant Rob DeBree, the chief investigator in the case, will scoff at the idea that gay hatred had nothing to do with the crime. “Far from that!” he will say. “They knew damn well he was gay.… It started out as a robbery and burglary, and I sincerely believe the other activity was because he was gay.” Former Laramie police commander Dave O’Malley doesn’t think drug use motivated the attack, either. “I really don’t think [McKinney] was in a methamphetamine-induced rage when this happened,” he will say. “I don’t buy it at all. I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they [had] hatred toward him for being gay.” Shepard’s mother Judy Shepard will agree, saying: “I’m just not buying into that. There were a lot of things going on that night, and hate was one of them, and they murdered my son ultimately. Anything else we find out just doesn’t, just doesn’t change that fact.” McKinney will deny knowing Shepard before the murder, but some townspeople say they saw Shepard and McKinney together in the weeks before the murder, presumably seeing Shepard buying meth from McKinney. (ABC News 11/26/2004)
'Gay Panic Defense' - McKinney’s legal strategy is to use the so-called “gay panic defense,” where assailants justify their actions by claiming they were driven temporarily insane because of their victim’s homosexuality. McKinney’s lawyer Dion Custis will go even farther, claiming that Shepard made a physical advance towards McKinney. “It started because Matthew Shepard grabbed [McKinney’s] balls,” Custis will tell the jury. “It continued because Aaron McKinney was a chronic meth user.” However, McKinney’s fellow assailant Russell Henderson will later admit that Shepard never made any advances towards either of his killers. Henderson will not testify against McKinney, as is arranged, so Custis is free to make the argument to the jury. (Cullen 11/6/1999) Of Henderson, his landlord says: “I perceived him as a follower. I have a hard time imagining him coming up with anything like this on his own. It seems extremely out of character, but sometimes people make really bad choices.” (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Search for Justification - Experts say that the details of the incident fit a larger pattern of anti-gay crimes. Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist, observes: “Once someone is labeled as homosexual, any glance or conversation by that person is perceived as sexual flirtation. Flirtation, in turn, is viewed as a legitimate reason to assault.” Men like McKinney and Henderson justify their violent assaults on gay men, Franklin notes, by using excuses such as “self-defense” from homosexual overtures, ideological opposition to homosexuality, thrill seeking, and peer approval. (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Presidential Response - President Clinton condemns the killing, saying that “crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country.” Clinton presses Congress to expand the federal hate-crimes law to cover offenses based on disability or sexual orientation. “The public outrage in Laramie and all across America today echoes what we heard at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes last year,” Clinton says. “There is something we can do about this. Congress needs to pass our tough hate crimes legislation. It can do so even before it adjourns, and it should do so.” Governor Jim Geringer (R-WY) demurs when asked if Wyoming should pass similar legislation, saying that he is against giving one group “special rights” over others. (CNN 10/12/1998) Several gay entertainment figures openly declare the murder to be a hate crime. Actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who hosts Shepard’s memorial service in Washington, DC, tells the gathered mourners that she publicly announced her sexual orientation in part “to keep this type of thing from happening.” Gay singer Melissa Etheridge will write a song, “Scarecrow,” as a tribute to Shepard (the title comes from Shepard’s initially being mistaken for a scarecrow when he was found). (Hall and Hall 2006, pp. 575)

ABC News reporter Bryan Robinson prints a retrospective of the impact the 1998 murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After) has had on some of those involved in its aftermath. The murder is generally perceived to have been a hate crime, perpetuated by two assailants who hated Shepard because he was openly gay. One of the people whose lives were profoundly changed is Police Chief Dave O’Malley of Laramie, Wyoming. O’Malley, who was deeply involved in the investigation of Shepard’s murder, says at the time he was intolerant of gays. “I was conservative. I bought into many of the stereotypes and I told many of the jokes associated with someone who is gay,” O’Malley says. “I was close-minded. It’s something I’m really ashamed of today.… I was raised in a conservative, Irish-Catholic family in Kansas. My father would joke around, saying: ‘There are no gays in Kansas. And if there are, they sure as hell ain’t Irish.‘… I lost my ignorance [after Shepard’s slaying].” O’Malley has become a gay rights activist, and in 2002 won the Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign for his work on behalf of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) citizens. Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard’s from college, says she had always been an outspoken gay activist, but after Shepard’s murder, she became much more active. She currently produces and co-hosts the Derek and Romaine Show on Sirius Radio. “I was no longer just a girl from Wyoming,” she recalls. “I did a lot of interviews [during media coverage of Shepard’s slaying] and worked for GLAAD [the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation]. One of the things I learned after doing interviews and working on the other side as part of the media is that you do have the power to reach people and influence public opinion.… I don’t think there’s been a day since where I don’t talk about Matthew. As far how his death affected me, I guess it really made me think about what kind of person I wanted to be, how I wanted to be the kind of person who makes the world a better place.” Robinson writes that, because of Shepard’s murder, many Americans have come to the same realization that O’Malley has reached: that gays and lesbians are targets for hate crimes. Cathy Renna of GLAAD says: “Matt’s murder made people realize that it was time to change laws, that attacks on gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders are happening, that this an issue. In a sense, it was a watershed moment. It took the topic of gay and lesbian people and turned it into dinner table conversation.” However, the number of reported hate crimes against LGBT citizens has increased since Shepard’s murder, according to the FBI. (Robinson 10/10/2003)


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