Matthew Shepard's Ghost


The 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, was a flashpoint for advocates of hate crime laws. In the days between his brutal beating and his death, Shepard's friends promoted the idea that he was attacked because he was gay. Shep­ard's murderers, Aaron Mc­Kinney and Russell Henderson, reinforced that belief when they offered a "gay panic" defense, claiming they had been driven temporarily insane when Shepard came on to them. The framing stuck: The hate crime statute that Congress passed in 2009 was named after Shepard.

The "hate" label was applied not just to the killing but to the place where the crime happened. In "The 'Hate State' Myth" (May 1999), Robert O. Blanchard, a gay Wyoming native, complained to reason readers that the press had portrayed his home state as an ignorant, bigoted backwater. "The national media," one local told him, "will get 100 interviews and, if they get one like 'gays get what they deserve,' they will use it." The two trends frequently converged, with stories about the Shepard case often emphasizing that Wyoming did not have a hate crime law.

Now Stephen Jimenez, another gay journalist, is claiming that Shepard's death was fueled not by hate but by drugs. In The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (Steerforth), based on 13 years of research, Jimenez reports that Shepard had a prior sexual relationship with McKinney and that both were involved in Laramie's meth trade. Jimenez argues that Shepard's murder may have been a botched attempt by McKinney to extract information about a drug shipment.

Jimenez also claims that at the time of the assault McKinney was coming down from a days-long meth bender, and he suggests that a drug-induced paranoia contributed to the severity of the beating. That claim is questionable, given the lack of scientific evidence for such pharmacological compulsions.

Jimenez deserves credit for deconstructing the misleading hate-crime frame that the press pushed in the immediate aftermath of Shepard's murder, and for presenting a more complex picture both of the young victim and of his attackers. To the extent that Jimenez unskeptically accepts anti-drug propaganda, however, he layers a new set of politically driven myths onto the Shepard case.