It was the perfect “hate crime.” Backers of hate-crime legislation in Washington – and their allies in the homosexual lobby – could not have hoped for anything better. Suddenly, here was evidence of America’s “hate-crime epidemic” blasted to the nation and the world via wall-to-wall media coverage. The need to pass hate crime legislation immediately was evident.

Matthew Shepard, it was reported, had died at the hands of two bigots enraged by his homosexuality. They mercilessly beat him with a .357 magnum pistol, stole $30 and left him tied to a split-rail fence outside Laramie, Wyo. Alone, in near-freezing nighttime temperatures, the 21-year-old college student fell into a coma and was not found until 18 hours later. He died on Oct. 12, 1998, six days after the brutal attack.

Two days later, crowds gathered in cities nationwide for candlelight vigils in memory of Matthew. Five-thousand people gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to listen to Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank, an openly homosexual member of the U.S. House of Representatives, condemn the murder and call for passage of hate-crime legislation.

“We take issue with those who say that we don’t need these laws,” House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri told the crowd, as it chanted “Now, Now, Now,” and demanded that Congress pass hate-crime legislation before it adjourned. In a written statement, Gephardt also said, “Despite the hurt we all feel, now is not a time for vengeance or anger or finger pointing.”

Who was to blame?

Few heeded that message. Homosexual-rights groups, some in the media and even a few politicians charged that Christians who oppose homosexuality were to blame for Matthew Shepard’s death. Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest homosexual advocacy group, charged on NBC’s “Today” show that Shepard was murdered because “people’s minds have been twisted with cruel stereotypes about gay and lesbian people.” Birch blamed a pro-family ad campaign featuring men and women who had left homosexuality, for having “poisoned” the atmosphere.

The “Truth in Love” print and TV ad campaign, a project of Coral Ridge Ministries and other pro-family groups, had profiled people who found liberation from homosexuality through faith in Jesus Christ. These ads, Birch said, presented homosexuals “as defective, as less than, as not fully human,” and she charged that they led to Matthew Shepard’s death when he crossed paths with “someone that had been fed this rhetoric and came at him full of rage and hate.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors concurred. A week after Shepard’s death, the Board sent a frenzied letter to Coral Ridge Ministries and other pro-family groups denouncing their “hateful rhetoric against gays, lesbians and transgendered people.” There is a “direct correlation,” the San Francisco Board wrote, between calling homosexual behavior sinful and the “horrible crimes committed against gays and lesbians,” including the death of Matthew Shepard.

The true story

Matthew Shepard’s death made him an immediate poster child for homosexual rights. The grim saga of this young man’s horrible murder, coupled with the claim that he was targeted because of his homosexuality, has since reached millions through documentaries, stage productions and made-for-TV movies.

Ten years after his death, Matthew Shepard’s name is synonymous with the campaign to enact hate-crime laws. Supporters of the “Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007” want to add “sexual orientation” to the list of groups granted special protection from so-called hate crimes.

There is just one problem with this story. According to the evidence, it is not true. Money for drugs, not “homophobia,” was the motive for Matthew Shepard’s murder, as revealed by a 2004 ABC News “20/20” report. Aaron McKinney, sentenced in 1999 to two life sentences for Matthew Shepard’s murder, was on a sleepless week-long methamphetamine binge and in search of money for more drugs when he and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, met Shepard at a bar.

Earlier that evening, McKinney said, he had tried and failed to take $10,000 from a drug dealer. He saw in Shepard, a well-dressed but slight young man, an easy robbery victim and readily obliged when Shepard asked for a lift home because he was too drunk. All three were in the front seat of McKinney’s truck, with Henderson driving, when Shepard grabbed McKinney’s leg. McKinney reacted by hitting Shepard with his gun butt, as he told ABC, “I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway.”

‘It wasn’t a hate crime’

McKinney’s attorney offered a “gay panic” defense at trial, suggesting that the murderer turned violent when Shepard made a homosexual pass at him. McKinney, who will never be eligible for parole, now says that was not the case. “No, I did not,” he replied when asked if he attacked Shepard because he was homosexual. “I would say it wasn’t a hate crime,” he told ABC. “All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.”

Henderson also denied the hate-crime charge. “It’s not because me and Aaron had anything against gays or anything like that,” he said.

McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, agrees. Price supported the “gay panic defense” during the trial, but told ABC, “I don’t think it was a hate crime at all. I never did.”

Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor, said, “I don’t think the proof was there,” for the hate-crime allegation. Rerucha, who sought the death penalty for McKinney, thinks it was McKinney’s drug-addled state that led to the crime. “The methamphetamine just fueled to this point where there was no control. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. It was a murder that was once again driven by drugs,” he said.

Laramie Police Detective Ben Fritzen, a lead investigator in the case, said, “Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide. If it wasn’t Shepard, they would have found another easy target. What it came down to really is drugs and money and two punks that were out looking for it.”

‘Don’t confuse me with the facts’

But these after-trial claims have had little impact on public perceptions. Judy and Dennis Shepard reject the ABC report, as do homosexual advocacy groups. A decade after his death, the story line that Matthew Shepard’s killers acted out of hatred for homosexuals remains firmly in place. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley wrote this year that Shepard “would have been 31 this year had the anti-gay terrorists not gotten him.”

In one sense, it really doesn’t matter whether Matthew’s murder was a robbery gone bad or the act of two bigots. Either way, justice was done in the end. Wyoming has no hate-crime law, but both men are locked up for life. Ironically, McKinney might have faced the death penalty had not Judy Shepard intervened against it.

In the end, the Matthew Shepard story shows that when it comes to meting out justice, laws against “hate crimes” are an overblown and unneeded solution.

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