Were Matthew Shepard’s Murderers Equally Culpable?

In today’s video from Stephen Jimenez, author of The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, he shares his thoughts on what role Russell Henderson played in the murder of Shepard and why he thinks Russell might have gotten a different sentence than Aaron McKinney if Henderson had not been pressured to accept a plea bargain:

A reader writes:

Thanks for your coverage of the new Matthew Shepard book.  I only wish my uncle had lived to see its publication.  A gay man, he grew up in Wyoming, and was outraged by the media circus that arose in response to the killing. As he wrote in a 1999 piece for Reason magazine, in his view the death of Matthew Shepard was hijacked for political purposes , and Wyoming was slimmed in the process. My sense is that you and he saw eye-to-eye on many issues.

From that article by Robert O. Blanchard, “The ‘Hate State’ Myth“:

With the Shepard case, the Wild West setting of the murder augmented the standard media narrative: Of course, the coverage implied, Wyoming’s macho, frontier culture is closed-minded, bigoted, and homophobic–what else could it be? As an NBC reporter put it while standing outside a Laramie drinking joint, “At Wild Willies Cowboy Bar today, patrons said hate is easy to find here.” Never mind that Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right not only to vote but to own property and to hold office; that it elected the nation’s first female governor in 1924; that it ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973; that it was at the forefront of a trend in the 1970s to repeal sodomy laws; and that in the 1990s, more than 70 percent of its voters rejected anti-abortion initiatives. For the media, Wyoming was a natural setting for such a bestial crime. As The New York Times editorial page intoned the day following Shepard’s death: “Laramie, the home seat of [Wyoming’s] university, is a small town with a masculine culture… [Shepard] died in a coma yesterday, in a state without a hate-crimes law.”

As a Wyoming native (now living in Texas) and a gay man, I find such geographical stereotyping to be more than simply inaccurate and irresponsible. The coverage of the Shepard case delivers a damning lesson about the gross inability of the hate crime news formula to explain complex social situations–and it demonstrates that when the media and advocacy groups are faced with the choice of responding to reality or simply sticking with their scripts, they almost invariably choose the latter.

The Book Of Matt comes out next week (pre-order it here). A summary of the book here. Byliner subscribers can read an excerpt here. Steve’s previous Dish videos are here.