Friday, September 28, 2007

Still bashing Matthew Shepard

-- by Dave

Roger Ailes notices that both Andrew Sullivan and the bathetic Andrew Breitbart, who opined in the Los Angeles Times that ABC's revisionist reportage of the Matthew Shepard case was the definitive end of the story and that it wasn't really a hate crime, are once again depicting bias-crime laws as mere "political correctness":
A street in West Hollywood still stands in his name despite ABC News reporting the story false: He was killed by crazed meth addicts for drugs and money -- not because he was gay. Isn't that tragic enough?

Chimes in Sullivan:
And he's right about the Matthew Shepard case, which, even now, is being misleadingly exploited by interest group politics to enact a completely symbolic and utterly irrelevant "hate crimes bill."

And yet Andrew must also know that the Shepard case was not devoid of homophobia, even if it was grotesquely distorted as a pure hate crime by the usual suspects.

Well, this is par for the course for Sullivan, at least, who's demonstrated on multiple occasions that he fundamentally misunderstands bias-crimes laws, and when called on it simply refuses to actually try to understand them. As for Breitbart, well, who knows -- but as I explained in some detail at the time of the report, ABC's reportage was some of the worst I've ever seen on the issue of bias crimes:
Indeed, the entire thrust of ABC's "revelations" -- that it was all a drug binge, not a hate crime -- reveals how little the reporters who worked on this understand not just bias crimes but criminal law generally. One factor, such as drug use, does not cancel out another, such as a bias motive. They often in fact appear together and work in conjunction.

There's an even more significant problem with the 20/20 report, however: It is signficantly factually flawed.

The flaw is not so much in what it reports, but what it intentionally omits. ... [I]t omits other central pieces of evidence which established clearly that it was no mere "theory" that McKinney had committed a gay hate crime.

I go into the Shepard case in moderate detail in my book Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crimes in America:
Shepard, a twenty-two-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was openly gay, and was somewhat flamboyant about it, at least by Laramie standards. Hanging out in a local bar the night of October 6, he managed at least to attract the attention of two local rednecks, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who were looking for someone to rob, and picked Shepard because he was gay. They told Shepard they too were gay and offered to give him a ride home in their pickup truck, and Shepard accepted.

McKinney later gave multiple, conflicting accounts of what happened that night. He told a police detective that Shepard had not made any advances toward him at the bar, but that Shepard put his hand on McKinney's leg inside the pickup, at which point McKinney told him: "Guess what? We're not gay. You're gonna get jacked." From prison, he wrote to a friend that he started beating Shepard in the car because of an even more naked advance:

"When we got out to where he was living, I got ready to draw down on his ass, and all of the sudden he said he was gay and wanted a piece of me. While he was 'comming out of the closet' he grabbed my nuts and licked my ear!! Being a verry drunk homofobic [sic] I flipped out and began to pistol whip the fag with my gun, ready at hand."

Later, at trial, McKinney attempted to claim that Shepard had in fact made an advance on him at the bar, whispering a sexual proposition into his ear and then licking his lips suggestively. The humiliation he felt at the advance, he claimed, spurred a violent rage that made him want to beat Shepard. (The judge, however, struck down this testimony.)

Whatever the sequence of events and motivations, the three men wound up southeast of town in a remote area near the Sherman Hills subdivision. McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard and tied him up with rope. As Shepard begged for his life, McKinney proceeded to beat him severely, ultimately pulling out a gun and pistol-whipping him over the head. They left him to die, in the freezing night air, leaned up against a wooden rail fence.

Moreover, as I explained in the post on the ABC report:
[T]he 20/20 report substantially omits evidence that was produced at the time establishing McKinney's bias motivation. And indeed, McKinney not only did not deny the existence of this bias, he positively embraced it at trial by attempting a "gay panic" defense.

Incidentally, Fritzen was not the lead investigator in the case. That honor went to a fellow named Rob DeBree. And DeBree has significantly repudiated the "crystal meth" theory.

Here's what he told Beth Loffreda, author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of an Anti-Gay Murder, regarding the attempt by McKinney's defense team to paint him as being under the influence of crystal meth:

Rob DeBree too was unimpressed by the argument -- he told me quite forcefully that the murder didn't look like any meth crime he knew.

In his confession to DeBree, McKinney had denied using meth the day of the murder, and while McKinney had been arrested too late for the police to confirm this through blood testing, DeBree felt certain that for once he had told the truth. Obviously it's unsurprising that the lead investigator would disagree with the defense, but DeBree had some compelling reasons on his side. "There's no way" it was a meth crime, DeBree argued, still passionate about the issue when I met him nearly six months after the trial had ended. No evidence of recent drug use was "found in the search of their residences. There was no evidence in the truck. From everything we were able to investigate, the last time they would have done meth would have been up to two to three weeks previous to that night. What the defense attempted to do was a bluff." ...

There are other serious problems with the report. It omits the fact that McKinney has now changed his story at least three times, and probably more, raising serious doubts about his credibility anyway. It also omits the fact that other detectives in the case testified at trial that the victim was selected for violence, and was beaten especially severely, because he was gay. Their testimony was based on their actual conversations with McKinney and Henderson.

And the piece's later attempts to defend McKinney by tainting Shepard's reputation (claiming he also was a crystal-meth user) should be beneath even the lowliest cops-and-courts reporter, let alone a national news organization. Even if true, whatever Shepard's habits, he did not deserve to die for them.

Sullivan has a long and impressive (not in a good way) history of writing monumentally dumb things about bias-crimes laws, which he likes to bash as one of the ways he can hold up his self-appointed image as an "independent" thinker.

Sullivan, for instance, hopped into the journalistic bed with WorldNetDaily's Joseph Farah in claiming the notorious Jesse Dirkhising case as an example of the media's left-wing bias/political correctness, doing so on the loftier pages of The New Republic. Comparing coverage of the Shepard and Dirkhising cases, Sullivan described the discrepancy as "staggering" and concluded that "the Shepard case was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law." Meanwhile, he contended, they buried the Dirkhising story because they feared they might excite anti-gay bigotry. "I think there is clearly evidence that many in the media decided we're not going to go there because we know it will feed anti-gay prejudice," Sullivan told ABC News.

However, as I pointed out in Death on the Fourth of July:
There was just one problem: the killing of Jesse Dirkhising was not a hate crime. ... There was, however, no evidence anywhere that the two gay men had acted out of a bias motivation against straight children, nor that Dirkhising had been intentionally selected because of his sexual preference. Neither Brown nor Carpenter had ever evidenced any animus toward straight people, and there was no indication of any desire to terrorize the straight community or "put them in their place."

In reality, Dirkhising's death was a relatively simple if appalling case of child murder -- and indeed, Brown was eventually convicted of, and Carpenter pleaded guilty to murder charges, and both were sentenced to life in prison without parole. There were 1,449 such murders committed in 1999 -- and though the media report such cases locally, they rarely make national headlines, largely because even though every child murder is by nature horrifying, there is no national debate over the wrongness of pedophilia or assaults on children, nor the propriety of stiffer penalties for them. These murders in fact are perpetrated by all kinds of people, though predominantly by heterosexuals who attack young girls. And while some are horrendous enough to catch national attention, there are too many of them to all receive splash coverage. Indeed, in the same month following Dirkhising’s killing, there were noteworthy murder/rape stories in Kansas and Wisconsin involving young girls that received about the same amount of media coverage.

The only conceivable reasons a national editor might have for calling out the case would be either a taste for salacious details or to deliberately portray gays in a grim light (as, indeed, did Farah and the religious right). Focusing on a case like Dirkhising's while comparatively ignoring a thousand other heterosexual child murders reflects a genuine bias, not an imagined one. Farah, Sullivan, and their cohorts essentially chastised their colleagues in the media for their failure to participate in their own rather spectacular display of gay-bashing (which, in the case of Sullivan, is also bizarre).

On another occasion, Sullivan devoted an extended essay in The New York Times Sunday Magazine to the issue of bias crimes without ever once evincing any understand whatsoever of the laws against them.

As I note in DOTFOJ, what Sullivan does is to either exploit or utterly succumb to the rather crude misunderstanding of the laws that arises from the term "hate crime" itself:
Confusion over the meaning of the term "hate crime" is probably the most obvious reason for this. Many advocates of the laws, in fact, argue strenuously for dropping any kind of reference to "hate" because of the tremendous confusion it creates. And legally speaking, they are probably right. While it is true that, almost without exception, any bias-driven crime has a kind of hatred at its core, many non-bias crimes—especially violent crimes such as murders, assaults, and rapes—unquestionably also can be driven by hatred. In other words, contrary to the popular aphorism, not every crime committed in hatred is a hate crime. Nor is hate necessarily a component of a bias crime, though it is rare that it is not; most such cases involve cold-blooded sociopathic or psychopathic personalities, though their acts were clearly bias-motivated. ...

[I]t is difficult to conclude that it is anything besides utter confusion that could drive someone like Andrew Sullivan to compose the following exercise in sheer nonsense, in the course of an exhaustive essay on hate crimes, for the New York Times Magazine (let alone for the Times to publish it):

For all our zeal to attack hate, we still have a remarkably vague idea of what it actually is. A single word, after all, tells us less, not more. For all its emotional punch, ''hate'' is far less nuanced an idea than prejudice, or bigotry, or bias [emphasis mine] or anger, or even mere aversion to others. Is it to stand in for all these varieties of human experience—and everything in between? If so, then the war against it will be so vast as to be quixotic. Or is ''hate'' to stand for a very specific idea or belief, or set of beliefs, with a very specific object or group of objects? Then waging war against it is almost certainly unconstitutional.

If hate-crime laws actually were an attempt to outlaw hate, then there might indeed be real cause to oppose them. As Sullivan suggests, it’s highly unlikely they’d have passed constitutional muster with the Supreme Court. However, the laws currently on the books certainly have done so, and the federal legislation proposed so far hews closely to them. More to the point, even though Sullivan mentions "bias" several times in the 7,657-word piece, nowhere does he evince any kind of awareness that the laws he is addressing deal solely with bias-motivated crimes.

Sullivan, of course, has jumped onto Breitbart's Shepard-bashing bandwagon because he wants yet another chance to demonstrate his ideological independence on what's traditionally a "gay" issue. It's all very contrived, and most of all, all it really demonstrates is his persistent willingness to sacrifice clear thinking for an image pose.

In the process, of course, he and Breitbart have once again -- following in the footsteps of ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas (who has a history of parroting right-wing talking points) a few years ago -- symbolically exhumed poor Matt Shepard's body, leaned it back up against that fence, and given it a few more whacks. But oh, they look good doing it.

UPDATE: Sisyphus Shrugged has more on Sully.

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