The Truth About Hate Crimes

Ashley Herzog
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Posted: Jul 20, 2009 4:00 PM

I’ll grant supporters of hate crimes legislation one thing: they certainly understand the tactical advantage of being hateful when accusing others of hate.

This weekend, after the Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Bill, I posted several articles on Facebook and my blog questioning the claim that Matthew Shepard was murdered solely because he was gay.

Although the media and gay rights activists treat it as conventional wisdom, this claim has always been in dispute. Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, admitted from the start that they were on a drug binge at the time of the killing. In 2004, McKinney told ABC News that Shepard's murder was not a homophobic hate crime, but a robbery gone wrong.

“He was pretty well-dressed, had a wallet full of money,” Aaron McKinney said of meeting Shepard. “All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him...Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Later that night, after assaulting Shepard, McKinney violently attacked two straight men. If homophobia was the only thing fueling McKinney’s rage, what was the motive for his second round of assaults?

But don’t raise these points with supporters of hate crimes legislation. After I posted the articles, I was called “stupid” and a “hate monger.” One commenter—after saying she’d like to punch me in the face—claimed that I was “defending his killers who so brutally murdered him.”

That’s not surprising. Supporters of hate legislation always accuse opponents of secretly cheering the crimes. After George W. Bush vetoed a hate crimes bill, the NAACP put out a campaign ad featuring the daughter of James Byrd, the victim of a racist murder in Texas. She said Bush’s veto made her feel like her father was “killed all over again.”

The ad failed to mention that the killers had already been sentenced to death, making an additional conviction for “hate” less than worthless. In Shepard’s case, the judge in Wyoming—the supposedly knuckle-dragging, redneck, homophobic state that gave us Dick Cheney—sentenced his killers to two consecutive life terms. (They were spared a death sentence after Shepard’s parents spoke out against it.)

When will hate legislation supporters acknowledge that the perpetrators of these crimes received the maximum punishment—without also being found guilty of “hate”? What is a hate crimes law supposed to accomplish that hasn’t already been done?

A quote from Casper Star-Tribune reporter Jason Marsden might explain a few things. "We knew in the newsroom the day [Shepard’s murder] happened, this is going to be a huge story, this is going to attract international interest," Marsden told ABC. “I remember one of my fellow reporters saying, 'this kid is going to be the new poster child for gay rights.’”

So there you have it. Hate legislation supporters have used Shepard’s murder as proof that gays are regularly targeted for their sexuality and need special protections under the law—protections not granted to other victims. They fear that if the facts about the case are widely known, they will lose their “poster child” and their credibility.

And they’ll use reckless charges of “hate” in order to keep the truth under wraps.