Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?

A new book argues that America’s most notorious hate crime was not a hate crime at all.

BY Aaron Hicklin

September 13 2013 5:00 AM ET

What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong? What if our most fiercely held convictions about the circumstances of that fatal night of October 6, 1998, have obscured other, more critical, aspects of the case? How do people sold on one version of history react to being told that facts are slippery — that thinking of Shepard’s murder as a hate crime does not mean it was a hate crime? And how does it color our understanding of such a crime if the perpetrator and victim not only knew each other but also had sex together, bought drugs from one another, and partied together?

None of this is idle speculation; it’s the fruit of years of dogged investigation by journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay. In the course of his reporting, Jimenez interviewed over 100 subjects, including friends of Shepard and of his convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, as well as the killers themselves (though by the book’s end you may have more questions than answers about the extent of Henderson’s complicity).  In the process, he amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard’s sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus has lead us to believe.

Of course, none of what Jimenez discovered changes the fact that Shepard was horribly murdered, but it may change how we interpret his murder. For many of us, the crime was not simply one family’s tragedy — it symbolized our vulnerable, uncertain place in the world. For many heterosexuals it challenged the myth of America as a guarantor of equality and liberty.

All that soul-searching may have felt necessary, especially in light of the legislation the case inspired, but was it helpful in getting at the truth? Or did our need to make a symbol of Shepard blind us to a messy, complex story that is darker and more troubling than the established narrative?

In The Book of Matt, Jimenez examines the laudable, if premature, effort on the part of two of Shepard’s friends to alert the media to what they believed to be a crime of hate. At the time, Shepard was still fighting for his life. By the time he died, five days later, the question had been firmly settled, as news reporters and gay organizations like GLAAD rushed in. As JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in a brilliant 1999 piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Press crews who had never before and have not since lingered over gruesome murders of homosexuals came out in force, reporting their brush with a bigotry so poisonous it could scarcely be imagined.”

Add to that a president who needed to expiate his sins against the LGBT community, still recoiling from the double whammy of DOMA and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Shepard’s posthumous status as gay martyr was sealed. The defendants didn’t aid themselves by claiming they’d lured Shepard into their car and then flipped out when he came on to them.  

But in what circumstances does someone slam a seven-inch gun barrel into their victim’s head so violently as to crush his brain stem? That’s not just flipping out, that’s psychotic — literally psychotic, to anyone familiar with the long-term effects of methamphetamine. In court, both the prosecutor and the plaintiffs had compelling reasons to ignore this thread, but for Jimenez it is the central context for understanding not only the brutality of the crime but the milieu in which both Shepard and McKinney lived and operated.

By several accounts, McKinney had been on a meth bender for five days prior to the murder, and spent much of October 6 trying to find more drugs. By the evening he was so wound up that he attacked three other men in addition to Shepard. Even Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had pushed for the death sentence for McKinney and Henderson, would later concede on ABC’s 20/20 that “it was a murder that was driven by drugs.”

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