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Seeking Understanding

The following was first posted at: http://rayrandomly.blogspot.com/

On <a href="http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/11/03/laramie/">November 3, 1999</a>– after 7 days of arguments and 10 hours of deliberation– a jury in Laramie, Wyoming handed down a verdict of <b>guilty of first degree felony murder</b> for Aaron McKinney, the then-22 year old who killed Matthew Shepherd. As Dave Cullen explained in <i>Salon</i> at the time:
<blockquote>"On the first, key question, the jury chose the middle option of second degree murder, meaning McKinney killed Shepard "maliciously," but without premeditation. That conviction carries a sentence of 20 years to life. Regardless of that choice, Wyoming law then required the jury to convict on two separate "felony murder" charges if they found that Shepard died as a direct result of an intentional kidnapping or aggravated robbery. They found McKinney guilty on both those counts, each of which can be punished by death."</blockquote>

McKinney confessed to beating Shepherd and the co-defendant–Russell Henderson– pleaded guilty the previous April and "plea bargained two life sentences without possibility of parole," according to Salon. The day after sentencing, Dennis Shepherd–Matthew's father– addressed McKinney with <a href="http://www.wiredstrategies.com/mrshep.htm">these words</a>:
<blockquote>"I, too, believe in the death penalty. I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt. Mr. McKinney, I am not doing this because of your family. I am definitely not doing this because of the crass and unwarranted pressures put on by the religious community. If anything, that hardens my resolve to see you die. Mr. McKinney, I’m going to grant you life, as hard as that is for me to do, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. Every time that you see your cell mate, remember that you had a choice, and now you are living that choice. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it."</blockquote>

The Shepherd case was the first time a  <a href="http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/11/01/gay_panic/index.html">gay panic defense</a> was attmpted and thrown out. According to Judge Barton Voight:
<blockquote>"The Defendant cannot conceal the true nature of the defense by claiming it is not a homosexual rage defense…What [defense counsel] hope to do is to present testimony that, because of homosexual experiences in the Defendant's past, he flew into a rage and killed Matthew Shepard, without specific intent to kill, but voluntarily in a sudden heat of passion. This is the homosexual rage defense, nothing more, nothing less…The reason for an objective test is obvious.If the test were subjective, whatever stimulus that happened to 'set off' a defendant would be a defense to the malice element … If a defendant has a low tolerance for letting his wife stay late at the bar, killing her would be manslaughter. That cannot be the law. Is it murder if a white supremacist kills a white man who jostles him in a crowd, but only manslaughter if he kills a black man who does the same? There is nothing from which the jury could conclude that these homosexual experiences had any negating effect upon the formation of a specific intent. If anything, the proffered evidence may suggest to the jury that the Defendant had a motive to kill Matthew Shepard."</blockquote>

On <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gabriel-rotello/the-gruesome-death-of-sho_b_52158.html">April 12, 2007</a> Aaron "Shorty" Hall was allegedly beaten to death by two teenagers–18 year old Coleman King and 19 year old Garret Gray– who Monday pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea bargain reached in Jackson Circuit Court, according to the <i>Indianapolis Star.</i>

The details of the crime as written about by <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gabriel-rotello/the-gruesome-death-of-sho_b_52158.html"> Gabriel Rotello of The Huffington Post</a> sound like the plot of a Wes Cravn movie or Bret Easton Ellis novel. Unfortunately, it was <i> real</i>
<blockquote>"King and Gray told cops they beat Hall again at the bottom of the stairs, threw him into a pickup truck and continued beating him as they drove down a remote dirt road.

Once there, one of them had the audacity to send a friend a cellphone photo of the dying Shorty. Then they dumped him, naked but still alive, in a ditch. According to weather reports, it was 39 degrees that night.

The next morning they returned and found Shorty's broken and lifeless body in a field near the ditch. He had apparently crawled out for help, found none, and died alone in the dirt.

A few days later they returned, wrapped the body in a tarp and hid it in Gray's garage, where police found it after being alerted by the recipient of the cellphone photo."</blockquote>

And yet, as Rotello points out:<blockquote>"Indiana remains one of just five states that refuses to enact a hate crimes bill. Why? Because such a bill would cover — you guessed it — gays."</blockquote>

Not to mention the fact the Democrats <a href="http://www.washblade.com/thelatest/thelatest.cfm?blog_id=15561">caved in</a> on removing the Matthew Sheperd Act from the National Defense Authorization Act, which effectively <a href="http://www.bilerico.com/2007/12/from_the_washington_blade_senate.php"> killed the hate crimes legislation</a> for this year, postponing it at least until February.

As Rotello observed:<blockquote>"One of the reasons for hate crimes laws is to teach: to send a powerful lesson that the kind of savage bigotry that leads to violence and murder based on race, ethnicity and other factors — including sexual orientation — is a profound offense against the moral foundations of our society.

Hate crime laws send the lesson that violators will not be treated more lightly for such crimes, as they traditionally were, but punished more sternly."</blockquote>

While this is certainly true it does not solve the problem. The problem is homophobia. The reason these crimes were committed is homophobia; the reason these two men lost their lives is homophobia; the reason Indiana does not have a hate crimes law is homophobia; and <a href="http://www.bilerico.com/2007/12/thoughts_on_recent_hate_crimes_legislati.php"> one of the reasons hate crimes was dropped from federal legislation is–dare we say it–homophobia</a> as Alex Blaze points out:
<blockquote>"So it's strange that the bill would get painted as "LGBT legislation", when it's clearly much more…I wonder if being tagged as such was a large reason that it failed. Let's face it – we're not the most popular kids on the block. And it seems like a pretty ingenious right-wing strategy to make the entire bill just about the LGBT's, helping people to forget the thousands of protesters who, after the Jena, Louisiana, chain of events, gathered to protest in Washington and demand federal hate crimes legislation. That's one piece to this puzzle."</blockquote>

Legislation–necesary a step as it may be– will not solve the problem. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had once taught a unit on Matthew Shepherd to my students during our schools "Peace and Justice" week in response to homophobic slurs frequently and flippantly used by so many students. At the end of the unit I showed a film of <i>The Laramie Project</i> which my students read. After the film a student stayed after class and told me, "I still don't agree with his lifestyle but he didn't deserve to die because of it." Yes, the punishment–ideally–should fit the crime, crime should not go unpunished and so hate crimes legislation is needed. But the crime–believe it or not– is not the problem; it's the symptom of the problem and only information and education will solve that.

Educating people and answering their questions; confronting their fears and prejudices with courage, honesty and a faith seeking understanding are the best means of eradicating violence and homophobia. Forcing the perpetrators to face the survivors of their victims and confront the aftermath of their actions; to allow the survivors–like Dennis Shepherd– to have the final word–<b>that</b> is justice.

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