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Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Second Casualty is the Truth: Some Thoughts on the Murder Narrative

[Our Spanish door poses a very good question: what is truth, exactly?]
[You may decide for yourself, but the door requests that you check John 18.]

Like I've said before, I did not want to hear from Henderson and McKinney when I watched The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.   There were a lot of reasons for that which left me conflicted after the performance.  But one upside to hearing them speak, I figured, was that perhaps we'd finally hear the truth come out.  At first, when I started to think over McKinney's revelations in the play, for a moment of two I thought that we had finally heard the truth.  But the more I reflected back on the different versions I've heard and read, I realized that I don't think that was the case.  I started to see more and more holes in the new stories until I couldn't trust their version of events.  And the more I thought about it, I didn't trust what they told us in the 20/20 interview-- and they told us then that they weren't telling the truth when they talked to the cops the first time, either.  The more I mentally sorted through all this narrative debris, I started to wonder: have they ever told the truth?  And if they did, how on earth would we ever know? 

There is an old saying that in war, the first casualty is the truth.  With the two plays of The Laramie Project, we can see a similar principle at work:  Matt Shepard was the first casualty of McKinney and Henderson's rage.  The truth behind his murder, it seems, was the second.  It may be time to finally realize that of the three people who know the truth of that night, one is dead, and the other two, after so many years of rehashing this story for different purposes, have apparently lost the ability to tell us.

At this point, I feel like I can no longer treat McKinney and Henderson as capable of telling me anything about what happened on that night.  If there was ever any truth there, it's lost.  All that leaves me with is to see their stories as just that--  narratives they tell us.  Each narrative is an attempt at a relationship between them and their audience, told for a specific purpose.  Certainly, each narrative contains elements of the truth, but we have so few tools to help us discern what the truth is that the forensic truth of what happened that night might just be gone forever.  All we can do is look at these different narrative strains and evaluate them for their purpose and effectiveness.  What are the advantages to telling each story, and how were these narratives applied?  What were the perpetrators responding to when they told each story? 

I felt, this is good, if nothing else the truth is going to be told...  the truth is coming out. 
-- Rebecca Hillaker, in TLP (2000):91

While a building is being destroyed in front of me by a beautiful, all-consuming fire-- I argue with myself, I compare versions of truth. 
Out of this must now be taken: The Truth?
It must be so. 
The truth is validated by the majority, they say.  Or you bring your own version of the truth to the merciless arena of the past-- only in this way does the past become thinkable, the world become habitable. 
And if you believe your own version, your own lie, how can it be that you are being misleading?  To what extent can you bring yourself not to know what you know?  Eventually it is not the lie that matters, but that mechanism in yourself that allows you to accept distortions...
It is asking too much that that everyone should believe the Truth Commission's version of the truth.  Or that people should be set free by this truth, should be healed and reconciled.  But perhaps these narratives alone are enough to justify the existence of the Truth Commission.  Because of these narratives, people no longer can indulge in their separate dynasties of denial. 
--Antjie Krog, reflecting on the testimony of five murderers
in Country of my Skull, 112-113 (emphasis mine)

So, what was the first narrative we heard from McKinney, Henderson, and their relatives?  Honestly, it's hard so say, not being privy to the court records, the full confession tapes and whatnot; if anything, both the gay bashing and robbery motives seem to be alternative narratives that pop up at the same time.   The first story I can find in a LexisNexis search, however, is the gay-bashing.  (That's part of the reason I tend to believe this version over others.)  It's the story that McKinney steadfastly sticks to in his taped confession (or at least the part we see in The Laramie Project) and, knowing how quickly he was caught, that's pretty darn soon after Matt was beaten.  Kristen Price gave a similar statement in the earliest reports I've found in LexisNexis: she and McKinney's father say that he 'hates to be embarrassed' and that they beat him up for humiliating him in the bar by coming on to him.  Let's put the truthfulness of this statement to one side for a moment (even though this is the version I ascribe to-- let me make that clear) because there's no real way to prove or disprove it.  What ulterior motives might drive everyone to tell this story first?   

As it turns out, there's a lot.  Something that doesn't get mentioned in TLP is that Aaron was already looking at possible jail time for a previous robbery--  a KFC where he worked.  (Go back and reread Shannon and Jen's "moment" with this in mind--it gets really interesting.)  McKinney stole $2500 and dessert.  He was going to barely miss prison time for that conviction and really needed to keep his nose clean.

Now McKinney has another robbery charge come up-- this time aggravated robbery, with assault and a firearm involved.  After Shepard dies, McKinney is facing premeditated homicide.  McKinney has a very good reason to want to make this robbery story go away if he can at all do it.   So, if you live in a conservative state like Wyoming, what narrative would work well to justify tying up a guy in the dark and beating the dickens out of him?  The most obvious one, with a gay victim, is to put the blame back on him-- all McKinney has to do is say that Matt hit on him.

For the first week or two after the incident, that's the line that those closest to McKinney-- and even McKinney's confession-- tell us.   He isn't responsible for his own actions, this storyline says, because how else was he supposed to react to unwanted advances?  If a guy hits on you, then you hit him back.  And how effective is this argument?  Well, let's ask Murdock Cooper:
Some people are saying he made a pass at them.  You don't pick up regular people.  I'm not excusing their actions, but it made me feel better because it was partially Matthew Shepard's fault and partially the guys who did it...  you know, maybe it's fifty-fifty.  (58) 
What Cooper says here got passed around a lot.  In fact, my father tried this same line on me once, with temporarily catastrophic results for our relationship.  The fact is, the gay-bashing story had some, limited effectiveness in limiting McKinney's guilt to a small group of people.  As ashamed as I am to say this... is it any wonder his lawyer wanted to try a "gay panic" defense?... It makes me sick, but this narrative, to some extent, worked

So that's what the this particular narrative brings to the table in terms of reinforcing people's preconceived notions.  But what nobody had expected at this point was the firestorm of condemnation that narrative would visit upon them-- it's the "gay bashing" narrative that gets picked up in the national media.  When the Shepard beating made the national spotlight and Matt's sexuality became a factor to intensify, rather than mitigate, McKinney's culpability in Matt's murder, the gay bashing narrative became extremely problematic.  After this point, McKinney's camp picked up a different narrative, one that had been swirling about in the community already: that it was about drugs and robbery, the narrative he had previously avoided.  These two narratives seemed to run simultaneously from McKinney's associates, depending on the situation of the interview.

This second storyline-- the "drug deal gone bad" and "just a robbery" are hardly new.  McKinney and Henderson's relatives were spouting this one pretty quickly.  For instance, Price specifically says that "It wasn't meant to be a hate crime," and that "they just wanted to rob him" by the time she's interviewed on Oct. 11th in The Denver Post (although her quote about "embarrassing" McKinney is in the same article).  But take note: the first time we see this idea in The Denver Post, Price is already responding back to allegations of gay bashing.  We see them in the coverage at the same time, but it's clear one is in response to the other.  Next, Matt Mickelson told Vanity Fair that Henderson's stepfather claimed Henderson and McKinney were coming off of a crank (methamphetamine) bender just a few weeks after the beating.  The limousine driver who took him and Tina LaBrie to Fort Collins told Newsweek that he thought it was a "robbery gone wrong"  by late December.  Those are narratives that a lot of people around McKinney and Henderson pick up fast.    

By the time that Tectonic is interviewing people for their play, that story's widespread enough to get promoted to Tectonic Theater by McKinney's friends "Shannon" and "Jen."  If you read this moment in the play, it centers entirely around both motives-- the drugs and the robbery-- for almost the entire interview, and they both sort of downplay McKinney's misgivings about gay people.  By the time of McKinney's trial, then, the defense attorney has these two narratives to choose from-- and when they came down to the wire, they ran with the "gay panic" defense instead of robbery.  This causes a bit of relief for Rebecca Hilliker:
As much as, uh, part of me didn't want the defense of them saying it was a gay bashing or that it was gay panic, part of me is really grateful.  I was really scared that in the trial they were going to try and say that it was a robbery, or it was about drugs.  So when they used "gay panic" as their defense, I felt, this is good, if nothing else the truth is going to be told...  the truth is coming out.  (91) 
Hilliker, like me, has already chosen her favorite narrative: for her, the "gay panic" defense is a nod at the true narrative.  Although I agree with Hillaker, I don't have such clear conviction that this is the truth.  I just know it's the truth I happen to believe.  Anyhow, we've seen a series of narratives now about what happened that night: first, in the confession, that Matt had hit on him and it was a gay bashing, to robbery, and then back to gay-bashing, this time disguised as "gay panic."  As it turns out, we'll see that pendulum swing a couple more times before we're done. 

In 2004, we got a "new" (but in reality very, very old) version of what "really happened" that night when 20/20 aired their program on the Shepard murder.  In my view, 20/20 probably made a fatal error when they ran this story (well, aside from their personal bias, that is): they assumed that, now with the trial being over, Henderson and McKinney had nothing to lose and would therefore tell the truth.  This was an enormous mistake, in my opinion.  Once they were in prison and saw the personal and political fallout from the "gay panic" defense, they had a lot of other reasons to change their story back to the "robbery gone wrong" story.   Henderson still has a grandmother living in that community.  McKinney has a father, an aunt, cousins, and somewhere, a son.  Both of them have girlfriends involved in the crime.  McKinney is probably never going to see the outside of a jail, but just maybe Henderson might see the outside of a prison before he dies.  So they both have a reason to try and mitigate the consequences of their actions with a new narrative, one that can wish away the negative press of their previous narrative.  Matt's sexuality now became a non-factor in their story.  In this new version, he was murdered in a drug-fueled rage for money, plain and simple. 
And has this been a successful narrative for McKinney and Henderson?  It depends on who you talk to.  It convinced Bill O'Reilley that Matt's death wasn't a hate crime, and that story spread as far as the US Congress and, of course,  (Don't believe everything you read on Newsbusters, in other words.  Their only evidence is the 20/20 program.)   If you follow the venom spewed out by Fred Phelps about Matt Shepard (a practice I do not recommend) you'll see that he's jumped onto that bandwagon with both feet.  His latest Matt Shepard posters (see left, then spit) have been updated to include the phrase "Meth Head." (Ptooey.)  That stupid 20/20 interview may have been the best thing that ever happened to Fred Phelps.  Thanks a lot, ABC.  Oh, and thanks, too, Aaron McKinney.    

The funny thing is that the details within the crime have also changed quite a bit in McKinney and Henderson's minds, too.  We've already discussed the difference in narratives about who tied Shepard to the fence.  In the original version we see in McKinney's taped confession in The Laramie Project, McKinney makes Matt out to be the consummate victim, someone he apparently despises:

ROB DEBREE:  Did he ever ty to defend himself against you or hit you back?
AARON MCKINNEY:  Yeah, sort of.  He tried his little swings or whatever but he wasn't very effective.  (91)
ROB DEBREE:  Did he ask you to stop?
AARON MCKINNEY:  Well, yeah.  He was getting the shit kicked out of him.  (92) 

 Strangely enough, in Ten Years Later, even McKinney's view of his victim changes completely.  One of the things that really stood out for me in 10 Years Later was that Aaron McKinney transforms Matt into a monument of passivity.  He doesn't act scared; in fact, he doesn't scream or resist even when McKinney poked that gun in his face...  this image of Shepard's last moments is so strange that McKinney's interviewer suggests to McKinney that Shepard was in shock.  What narrative is McKinney playing in his head that would now require Matt to become so passive, so resigned to his fate?  It could be anything from mitigating culpability to guilt...  it's hard to say from the outside. 

So, what's the result of all this?  I guess my point is that, infuriatingly, we'll probably never know what really happened on the night that Matt Shepard decided to catch a ride back home with the last man he should have trusted.  With the forensic truth obscured or probably gone entirely, all we have left are the narratives we've been told, each centered around moments of forensic truth, certainly, but each crafted for a different rhetorical purpose.  And, depending on what we all want to believe, we've all picked the narrative that fits our sense of the world.  Like Catherine Connolly, I picked the gay bashing narrative because that's the one that makes sense of the world for me.  But others, like Doc Connor, Fred Phelps, or many of the Laramie residents interviewed in 10 Years Later, picked the narrative that slots nicely into their own worldview.  All I feel like I can do is recognize where all of these narratives come from.  And I can also recognize that, in addition to murdering Matthew Shepard on the night of October 7th, the second result of their actions was that we lost our ability to know the truth. 


1)  "What is the truth?"  From a door in Barcelona.  Taken from svet's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Actually, the door answers its own question on the other panel, but you can get an idea if you look the context, just three lines above the words in gilt

2) Screencap from, by me. 

3)  Detail of a Phelps protest in Burbank, California, at a showing of the Laramie Project, 30 May 2008.  Photo taken from k763's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY 2.0

4) Detail of a billboard photo in Cuesta, CA, courtesy emdot's Flickr photostream:


Hughes, Jim, and David Olinger.  "Beating Wasn't a Hate Crime, Suspect's Family Says."  Denver Post 11 Oct 1998: A10. 

Miller, Mark.  "The Final Days and Nights of a Gay Martyr."  Newsweek  21 Dec. 1998.

"New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder."  ABC News, 20/20.  26 Nov 2004.  Web.

Thernstrom, Melanie.  "The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard."  Vanity Fair, March 1999.  Web. 

Wilmouth, Brad. "ABC Debunked Matthew Shepard Murder as No Hate Crime, MSNBC Savages Republican for Repeating." 30 Apr 2009.  Web.

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