The newly signed “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” merely federalizes the unequal distribution of justice that has existed at the local level for years.
As such laws work, if your group lacks political and media influence, you can expect to be convicted of crimes you did not commit and receive longer sentences for those you did.
Consider the case of the bill’s namesake, Matthew Shepard. As the media told and retold the story, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, two “homophobic” desperados, killed the helpless gay Wyoming University student in a fit of “gay panic.”
Although Hollywood would turn out at least three TV movies about the “crucifixion” of Shepard, two of which premiered in the week before Easter 2002, the homophobic story line did not match the Wyoming reality.
Best evidence now suggests that McKinney, the actual killer, had previously expressed no homophobic sentiments.
One good reason why is that he was an active bisexual himself. Apparently, he and Shepard, who had a known drug problem, had done meth together a number of times.
On the night in question, McKinney went on a meth-fueled rampage. He pistol-whipped the vulnerable Shepard for drug money, drove into town to rob Shepard’s apartment and then pistol-whipped a stranger who got in his way, fracturing his skull in the process.
Matthew Shepard died just four weeks before the 1998 midterm elections. For the next four weeks, much to their own surprise, the killers were presented to America as poster children for the religious right and one more reason not to vote Republican.
Of course, McKinney and Henderson were not products of Christian culture, but of its antithesis: a crude, soulless, fatherless, sexually libertine, drug-addled, pop culture.
Henderson was born to a teenage alcoholic mother and grew up without a father. McKinney’s parents were divorced. Both were beaten by the “boyfriends” who inhabited their mothers’ lives.
On the night in question, McKinney pistol-whipped Henderson when he tried to intervene in the beating of Shepard.
Had Shepard not emerged as gay poster child, Henderson would likely have served a few years for manslaughter or as accessory to murder.
Instead, he had to plead to two consecutive life sentences to avoid the death penalty, a sentence to which the anti-death-penalty crowd raised no known objection.
“It’s really hard for me to talk to Russ,” says McKinney. “To see him in this situation, knowing that I’m the one who put him here.”
On the injustice scale, however, Henderson’s fate does not begin to measure up to that of former sailor Steven Nary.
Nary was tried for second-degree murder in San Francisco the same week Henderson was being tried in Laramie, Wyo.
The timing of the trial might have been coincidental, but it is unlikely. Nary had killed a gay man, and San Francisco’s political class is always eager to unruffle gay feathers.
Worse, the man Nary killed was the activist publisher of the leading Hispanic newspaper in the Bay area. San Francisco’s political class did not want to ruffle those feathers either.
Nary’s undoing began on a Saturday evening in March 1996. That fateful night the 18-year-old apprentice airman left the Alameda Naval Air Station and headed to the Palladium, a co-ed dance club for young people.
Nary tried dancing but was unsteady from a few too many beers, so he sat down by himself and watched. An older Hispanic gentleman sidled over to Nary.
Juan Pifarre, a 53-year-old Argentina native, had started the evening at a friend’s house in the Castro district where he had done a few too many lines of cocaine.
He then drove to that most unlikely of places for a middle-aged gay man, the Palladium.
After Pifarre and Nary got to talking, Nary mentioned that he had to leave to catch the last BART back to the ship. Pifarre offered him a ride.
“He seemed like a nice person,” Nary testified at his trial, “trusting person, and I’d get back to the base sooner.”
On the drive, Pifarre told him that he had had too much coke and wasn’t sure that he could make it across the bridge and back.
Pifarre told Nary his wife was out of town. He suggested that Nary “could stay at his house. He could call some girls.”
Pifarre, in fact, did have a wife, the result of a sham marriage to keep him from being deported. Pifarre also had two priors for sexual offenses, a reputation as a belligerent drunk and a history of violence with his sexual prey.
Nary’s memory on what happened chez Pifarre has always been imperfect. He wrote to me from prison about Pifarre’s attempt to rape him.
“I felt stuck. I could not speak. I could not move, and I could not do anything. He just kept trying and trying over and over. In fact it brings me to tears as I write this because I have avoided this image for so long.”
Nary had no idea he was describing the precise reaction of a person who had been slipped a date-rape drug, then all the rage among sexual predators in the gay community.
“Please, stop,” the lanky, 18-year-old sailor begged as he struggled through a paralyzing stupor. Pifarre would not.
Finally, in desperation, Nary grabbed a glass mug by Pifarre’s bedside and smacked the chunky, coked-up Pifarre in the head with it. Pifarre fought back.
When Nary finally subdued Pifarre, he grabbed his clothes and fled back through the deserted streets to his ship.
Back at the ship, Nary told the chaplain and then turned himself in. After rotting three years in a San Francisco jail, he got his kangaroo moment in court.
When Nary testified that he had been “disgusted” by what Pifarre was doing, namely raping him, the prosecutor hung him on a homophobia charge.
After 13 years in prison and an exceptional record, the 32-year-old Nary was just denied parole for another five years.
I am sure he will be excited to hear that justice San Francisco style can now be enjoyed by everyone across the [expletive-deleted] plain.