Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

Filed under: GLBT Social Issues and Civil Rights — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:40



There’s been a lot of recent controversy over Stephen Jiminez’s new book The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. Everyone knows the horrific events that occurred on October 6, 1998 in the small college town of Laramie, Wyoming. For those who don’t, the story we’ve all been told is that Matthew Shepard, an innocent college student at the University, was targeted for being homosexual by two predators at the local Fireside Lounge by the names of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The two convinced Shepard they too were gay and the three of them left the bar and got into McKinney’s truck, where Matthew was brutally pistol-whipped before being driven to a desolate farm (on the edge of an already very rural town) where he was tied to a fence post and robbed of his shoes and what little money he had before his viscous beatings resumed; he was eventually left for dead. Matthew was discovered the next day barely breathing and with a skull so badly fractured that actual cranial fragments herniated into Matthew’s brainstem. Just a few short days later, he succumbed to his injuries in hospital. McKinney and Henderson were both convicted of the murder and are serving two consecutive life terms in state prison. The horrendous nature of the killing coupled with the supposed deliberate focus on Shepard’s sexuality by his perpetrators sparked a national outcry for hate crimes legislation and added fuel to the GLBT civil rights movement in the United States.

But Jiminez’s thesis differs significantly with those events, more specifically, the motivations and true etiologic forces of Matthew’s murder, which he asserts was essentially a crime rooted in the methamphetamine trade plaguing Laramie at the time, in which Shepard was supposedly entrenched. According to Jiminez, McKinney personally knew Matthew way before the night of the murder, had on several occasions had sex with him, and believed he was in the possession of a large sum of cash resulting from a drug run Matt was originally planned to make earlier that day. The series of events Jiminez proposes just might be true. He provides quite a bit of well-researched data that seem to corroborate much of his assertions. He provides countless interviews from mutual acquaintances who claimed to have been with McKinney and Shepard concurrently numerous times; and he gives a multitude of examples of official (and unofficial) evidence that can be gleamed from legal documents and first-hand accounts from the lead prosecutor and law enforcement officers involved in the initial investigation. But what seems to be lacking somewhat from Jiminez’s work is at least a consideration that many of the persons he uses as informants on the case are either current or reformed addicts, convicted criminals, and other persons whose credibility should be seriously questioned. That along with the gushing support Jiminez provides to Henderson towards the end of the book suggesting he was treated unfairly by his legal team and deserves a reconsideration (which I found wincingly disturbing) threatens to infuse bias into what amounts to his years of dedicated investigative journalism on the case.

But regardless of that, The Book of Matt is a convincing read. And if the points Jiminez makes are just partial facts, then certainly at the very least, we should all question what we’ve long considered to be the historical truth of what happened to Matthew Shepard that night. Matthew’s murder helped to solidify the rationale for badly needed federal hate crimes legislation that would eventually include sexual orientation and gender identity. The sacrifice that Matthew made unwillingly has tremendously contributed to ensuring protections for an entire community of people. That is why so many in the GLBT community fear to tarnish his legacy. And I am certainly one of those people. While Jiminez has written a fascinating book that should definitely be read and pondered, no one should conclude based on it alone that it is a conclusive account of Matthew Shepard’s truth. But to consider that his death might not have been based in martyrdom as we’ve all believed doesn’t erase the amazing spirit Matt had and the impact his life and tragic murder continue to have.  The Book of Matt is something I definitely recommend to everyone to read. I hope that doing so invites you to be inquisitive about Matthew Shepard’s life and murder and to question the only version of the story we’ve ever been told. But I also hope you don’t close the book and conclude the story you’ve just read is the factual version of what really happened. That, unfortunately, is something we most likely will never know.

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