Editorial 27 - Published March 2006 - Response to 20/20 Documentary on Matthew Shepard's Murder by John Day
Well, the program had some pictures of Matthew which I hadn't seen before, most of them being from the set Gina Van Hoof took when she visited Matt in San Francisco in January, 1998. That might be the only thing about the program which was both good and new. The image is reversed in some of them.
I gathered the impression that the program's real point was to point out the evils of meth. If you do meth, you might expect to do some really evil things. Given the way that things were edited, I have some difficulty establishing any reliance on the interviews except on details. The equation drawn by Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor in this case, was no meth = no attack. He may have had a lot more to say than that, but that equation was what I think the program tried to establish.
Put that way, we aren't all that much further ahead than we were with the "Vanity Fair" and "Harper's" articles published in 1999. To the extent that there can be several different things which made for this tragedy, and not just one, that's unquestionably true. To that extent, the attack on Matthew was not SOLELY driven by homophobia. It does not follow that homophobia wasn't also a determining factor, and that the particular way it developed might have been driven by it. That's something that's been in reports since October, 1998, and it's not new.
Would Matthew have been attacked if he hadn't been gay? Henderson, at any rate, is clear that he would have been. He was too obviously an easy target, who looked as if he had some money on him. Would he have survived? Given what happened to Emiliano Morales a few minutes later, I very much doubt it. Emiliano wasn't out by himself, and his friend was able to give McKinney a fairly good bang over the head with another weapon. The photograph (reversed) of Emiliano in the program shows what ONE blow from that gun could do. Matt took about 18 blows, and had no way of defending himself. We don't have to worry too much about which of the primal hatreds within Aaron McKinney was feeding his rage: having had to deal with some local equivalents when I was small and defenseless, I can attest that those rages go their own way once they start.
That attack on Emiliano was arguably driven by racism. I doubt that it was an interest in the integrity of car tires on the streets of Laramie. Robbery was not an obvious motive (these two Latinos would not have had much money), and the fact that it took place at all suggests that robbery might have been a secondary motive with the attack on Matthew. For one thing, they Dynamic Duo were headed in any direction except towards Matthew's apartment where either drugs or money (depending on which report you believe - money is the most likely one) were to be had.
We may be grateful that one rumor may be disposed of: McKinney wasn't trying to collect on a drug debt Matthew owed him. It arose from the apparently correct observation that McKinney intended to rob a drug dealer of $10,000 which McKinney may have thought was due him. McKinney was obviously in a very vile mood for two or three days, and was likely a lethal hazard to anybody who crossed him in the slightest.
But does the "no meth = no attack" equation follow? Not necessarily. It's possible that McKinney would have been less dangerous, but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't have been dangerous anyway. Some do not think that McKinney was on high (Dave O'Malley, Robert deBree), and some think he was (Cal Rerucha). Again, from my memory of having to deal with some Aaron McKinneys, I suspect that McKinney might have attacked Matthew anyway, although the result may not have been quite as grim.
For the most part, this covering some pretty old ground, although we have a few more details. Some of them fill in some gaps, but don't change too much, and some of them are pretty bogus.
1) We learn that Matthew was out driving with Doc O'Connor on the Saturday before the attack, and Doc O'Connor says Matt told him he was HIV positive. It remains true, Elaine Parker to the contrary, that Doc's first memory of Matthew was the Friday night when he drove Matthew and Tina Labrie to Fort Collins. Matthew clearly took very well to Doc: he went out driving with him on Saturday and Monday, and he did contact Doc on the Tuesday night. Had the Doc not had to be at a meeting, Matt would have been driving with him, and not gone to the Fireside. It's clear that Matthew wasn't attracted to Doc sexually, but they became fast and pretty close friends.
As to Matt's HIV status, the medical records continue to say that he never did test positive. But there is another reality which is as important: for the last two years of his life, Matt was terrified that he might be. In this, he was as much worried that he might infect somebody else as any harm it would do him. To this there is another thing which goes with the kind of anxiety-driven depression that both Matt and I shared. You constantly dwell on what is the worst thing that could possibly happen, and it becomes a short step to believing that it is either inevitable, or that it has already happened. Matthew was imagining a great many things of this kind between Friday and Tuesday: that he would fail university, that nobody would care if he wasn't around, that he was an utter failure, that he was sure to be murdered sooner or later. When you get into this state of mind, you need somebody outside you to pull you back to some sense of proportion. Maybe Matt valued Doc for that reason. From that point of view, I think Matthew may have been a little better on Tuesday.
But the program's inference that Matt was depressed because he was HIV positive is backwards: he began believing that he was HIV positive because he was depressed. As far as medical records can tell anything, he never did test positive.
2) The program had a throwaway line that Matt was looking for than a ride home. It claims he was looking to trade sex for drugs. Nothing is said or shown to demonstrate that allegation, and there's a lot of evidence against it. For one thing, if Matt was feeling all that badly, he wouldn't have been interested in sex. That, like a lot of other desires, dries up if you're depressed (again, this is from my personal experience). On the night, Matt was far from his worst, but he wasn't very well either. He seems to have thought he was drunk, which was news to anybody else who saw him that night. For another, any of Matt's friends have stressed that neither Henderson nor McKinney would have been attractive to him. Additionally, there's some strongly stated beliefs by Walter Boulden and others that Matt was not one for one-night stands.
This is having to assemble a lot of evidence to refute an unsupported innuendo, and it's a good example of what is seriously wrong with this program.
I think it is possible that Matt may have wanted to talk for a little while after leaving the bar. He seems to have had that desire all evening (while not contacting several who would have gladly done it - he doesn't seem to have been thinking clearly). The story that his attackers pretended to be gay and from out of town comes from his attackers, after all, and there's nothing about the new interviews which changes it. We're now clear that they approached him to borrow a cigarette: he didn't come to them. What is not said, but known from others there is that Henderson did any of the talking. Here, as in some other things, Henderson's role seems underplayed to me.
3) Did they know Matt from before, and did they know he was gay beforehand? The program tries to show that McKinney did, while the MTV program has Henderson having a vague connection through his girlfriend. McKinney's fairly definite denial on this occasion is one of several "internal contradictions" in the presentation. The most I can make of the rest is that they may have been at the same crank parties on occasion. It turns out that Doc O'Connor is not the source for the story that Matt and Aaron had a session together in his limousine: Elaine Baker is, and she has some other people there as well. All I get out of that is that they were both at the same parties, and, if they were high, might understandably have had no memory of each other. This is what I think happened.
Basic point of gay-bashings. You don't have to be gay to be bashed. It's sufficient if somebody else decides you are. I suspect this is where things went this time, or would have if Matt wasn't fairly clearly asked, and fairly clearly admitted that he was gay. Matthew could be quite a flirt, to be sure, but he wasn't being that way that night, and unless he was pretty sure about whom he was with, he wasn't a "gay actor".
4) On several points, there's no way that the homophobia issue goes away. There's McKinney's ongoing description of the attack. Everything said or done by McKinney or any of his defenders is based on the belief that Wyoming juries will look more kindly on bashing gays than it will look on drug-fueled rages. That in itself is at least calculating on an established prejudice. Moreover, the argument that Matt was attacked more for his extreme vulnerability than his being gay as such does not get rid of it. If you have criminal intent, gays are vulnerable targets for several reasons: they're often closeted., so don't want to draw attention to themselves, or they don't trust the police. Whether you share the prejudice or not, you're still playing on it, and using it as a way to commit a crime.
I might say that McKinney didn't say anything which he hadn't said in letters and a phone interview before his trial. He did say it a great deal more coherently. Henderson did minimize his involvement on three counts: he did most of the talking in The Fireside, he definitely held Matthew so he could be punched after he made an unsuccessful effort to run away, and he certainly did his best to cover up for McKinney after the attack on the two Latinos. The latter is a simple function of Henderson's having a better sense of self-preservation. He seems to recognize his moral cowardice, although the unresolved question is whether he has learned how to be morally courageous.