Reactions To "The Book Of Matt" - A Followup

Posted on October 20, 2013 at 2:40 AM

By Dennis Stone

On October 10 I published some of my thoughts about journalist Stephen Jimenez’ new book “The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder Of Matthew Shepard.” The book claims that the circumstances surrounding the murder are much different than we’ve believed for the past fifteen years. (You can read that article here.) I addressed the reaction to the book on both the right and the left, but especially by gay sites and their readers. I have continued to read comments on those sites, and I have decided that it is worthwhile to follow up my article with additional information.

Before I begin I want to stress that it is not my intention to defend the book. I have ordered it but have not read it. I can neither condemn nor support something I haven’t read. Rather, it is my intention to defend the concept of following the truth wherever it leads, of making judgments on the basis of knowledge, of approaching things with an open mind rather than a deference to one’s agenda or preconceptions.

When news about the book began to hit gay websites I read multiple articles, and then the comment threads that followed the articles. With the notable exception of the first Advocate article (a thoughtful piece by editor Aaron Hicklin), the gay sites described the book from the perspective that it is obviously not true, and that the author is shamefully rewriting history, apparently for the profit. There was little attempt to analyze the book, or to substantively refute it. It was just taken for granted that it wasn’t true.

The comment threads following these articles were eye-opening in a remarkably negative way. I was shocked, then depressed, and finally angered. The most shocking and depressing aspect was that the reaction was entirely based on pure emotion, and on a reflexive, completely non-thinking fury toward even the idea that Matthew could have been anything other than a completely innocent victim of anti-gay hatred. There was no analysis, no consideration of the nature of Jimenez’ claims, not even the slightest crack in the certainty of their closed minds. The comments essentially said: “We know Matthew was a wonderful man, and he was killed because he was gay; no matter what anyone says our mind is made up. And we despise anyone who would say anything different.” It was obvious that Matthew Shepard is seen as an almost religious figure, an iconic symbol of big truths, and any attempt to tarnish the image we’ve had of him is vile sacrilege.

Here is a selection of quotes that represent the reader reaction:

“This man should take this idea and shove it up his fucking ass. This is wrong, you cannot change history, it is impossible.”

“Wtf people?!”

“its all about the money!!! Shame!!”

“Disgusting revisionist trying to make a buck off a dead hero. I am sick.”

“What a greedy opportunistic douche bag.”

“Homophobic SOB! Lying Scum for the money & extremest! [sic]”

“I hope this guy gets his ass sued. This is really scummy; to try to make a buck by dragging Matthew Shepard’s name and life through the mud. AND I hope the community boycotts dating him.”

“What self obsessed hogwash, fabricated just so the author could gain fame. Tell me, are we sure the author is in fact gay and he’s not just playing the part so he could gain some kind of standing to brace behind this complete fabrication?”

“WHAT A CROCK of SHIT, and an insult to a young man for whom the world continues to grieve, this was nothing more than a HATE crime, because he was an openly gay man, Matthew’s parents should sue this mongrel for defamation at least”

“a book I WILL NEVER BUY!!!!!!! this guy is a MORON!!!!!”

And on and on and on. Generally there are one or two brave souls who are a bit more thoughtful, and warn against rushing to judgment. A couple of them said they had read the book and found it reasonably persuasive. People who expressed such sentiments were essentially gang-tackled and vilified, often quite viciously, their intelligence and motives called into question.

Remember, these comments are from people who have not read the book, and who know little or nothing about it beyond its subject matter. All of this is troubling to me. It’s the left wing version of Fox News Nation, facts and thoughtful analysis not welcome, thank you. We’ll go with our agenda-driven preconceptions, and marginalize with vitriol anyone who dares to express an alternate view.

I prefer to avoid simplistic reactions, and I try to think about subjects before forming opinions. If it’s an important issue it’s worth a bit of time to investigate, and to expose myself to multiple sources of information. Matthew Shepard has been an icon to me for fifteen years, and as I said in my previous article I have always identified with him. So when this book came to my attention I considered it worth my time to look into it. Historically there have been many high profile cases where new information came to light years later, and this could be one of those cases. Rejecting it out of hand because I didn’t want it to be true, or because of how I had always felt about Matthew, was not an option for me. For these reasons I have ordered the book, but in the meantime I have read multiple sources about the case.

Many people have questioned Jimenez’ motives for writing the book, or for investigating the subject at all. The phrase “after all this time” is often added to the question. He is routinely lambasted for “selling out his people” to make a buck. Since Jimenez is gay himself the only possible explanation in the minds of many for such a travesty is profit. He obviously sought a subject that would sell books, then made up his own facts to make the book sensational enough to generate sales. “Why would he do such a thing?” is a common lament.

Jimenez went to Laramie, Wyoming, the site of the murder, in early 2000 to do research for a screenplay about the incident. The murderers – Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson – had been convicted and sent to prison for life, and Jimenez had no reason to doubt the narrative that had been established around the case. It was a violent anti-gay hate crime that symbolized the historical travails of a second class minority.

As part of his research he was able to access records that had been sealed for a year after the convictions. In those files he discovered an anonymous letter that had been written to the prosecutor in the case. In part it read: “I was shocked to hear that Aaron McKinney's attorneys claim gay panic in their defense...Aaron and Russ were quite familiar with gay bars and have frequented gay bars....deep down inside, a small part of him really liked some homosexual action."

The letter went dramatically against the public perceptions of the case. “Gay panic” based around the contention that Matthew had come on to McKinney was the core of the defense, and the core of the by-then gospel belief that the crime was the quintessential hate crime. The letter got Jimenez wondering how much more there was to the story. And here is the key point: it is the job of journalists to uncover and reveal the truth, to help us to understand the world for what it is, not for what our prejudices and agendas tell us it should be. Any journalist worthy of the name would be intrigued by a letter of the sort that Jimenez found. Any journalist worthy of the name would wonder whether there was more to the story.

Rusell Henderson and Aaron McKinney

The criticism has been made that the anonymous nature of the letter should have invalidated it for Jimenez. He obviously should not have accepted it uncritically as truth, but it would be absurd to automatically dismiss it. Anonymous sources have driven or originated many of the most sensational stories of our time, most dramatically in the Watergate investigation by Woodward and Bernstein. It’s not whether the anonymous source stands as verifiable proof of anything, it’s where it leads you. The journalistic instincts don’t say “ignore this because it’s anonymous;” rather, they say “I wonder if there is more to this.”

And so any good journalist would be interested in following up, as Jimenez did, and as I certainly would have. [At one time I seriously considered becoming a journalist.] Jimenez began investigating further, and the more he investigated, the more he found, the more leads he had for further investigation. One can question his methods, his sources, or his conclusions, but the journalistic motivation for doing such an investigation seems obvious.

As I was in the process of writing this piece I noticed a couple of newer articles in the gay press that promised a definitive refutation of the case that Jimenez makes in the book. “Attorney Dismantles Stephen Jimenez’s Matthew Shepard Trutherism” was the title at MediaMatters. “Attorney Tears Apart New Theories On Matthew Shepard Murder” said The Advocate. “Debunking Stephen Jimenez’s Effort To De-Gay Matthew Shepard’s Murder” was an earlier story at MediaMatters. I have to admit to being relieved at the prospect of Jimenez being “dismantled.” The manner in which the right wing has gleefully leaped on this story, and the way they’ve tried to use it to further their agenda, has been shameful. Being able to dismiss the book would certainly be a good thing, and would allow me to restore Matthew Shepard to the icon status he’s had with me since his death.

However, as I read the articles I became increasingly dismayed. Those that referred to the attorney “dismantling” or “tearing apart” Jimenez’ claims were based on a statement by attorney Tim Newcomb, who wasn’t involved in the actual court case, but began to represent Russell Henderson after he was imprisoned. What is the nature of his dismantling? There are three things.

First is the story of a man who called Russell Henderson’s grandmother while Newcomb was representing him. He claimed to be Matthew’s lover and had his diary. Newcomb asked for a copy, but the man said his sister actually had it. She in turn didn’t want to give it up because she feared for her brother’s life. Then why call the grandmother in the first place? “Eventually, he seemed to suggest that he didn't have enough money,” relates Newcomb. Because the man eventually became one of the approximately 150 sources in “The Book Of Matt” Newcomb uses that as his primary reason for distrusting the book. However, were an inconclusive story like that (the man “SEEMED to suggest” a need for money) introduced as evidence in court it would not be accepted.

The second facet of Newcomb’s “dismantling” of Jimenez is simply that Newcomb believes that McKinney murdered Shepard because he was gay. “I have long been convinced” of it,” he says, but he gives no indication as to why. The third facet is quite remarkable: “Unlike the author, who visited Laramie from New York a year and a half later, I was an attorney living in Laramie, and had been for several years, when Matthew was murdered. I mention that only because Laramie has few people and we tend to know of each other. Hidden truths behind notorious crimes are as rare as windless winters.”

Stephen Jimenez

That’s it. Most of the five page statement recounts the history of the case or talks at length about the vigil for Matthew in Laramie following the murder. (You can read Newcomb’s statement in its entirety here.) 

It is not my intent to “dismantle” Newcomb’s statement. But in what journalistic world does that statement constitute “tearing apart” Jimenez’ book. In what Orwellian perception is this a “dismantling” of the new book’s claims? It’s one inconclusive anecdote against the 107 named sources in the book and other anonymous ones, and it’s a personal belief based on living in Laramie where people “tend to know of each other.”

The earlier MediaMatters story about debunking the book is at least intelligently structured and well thought out. However, as a debunking it’s not very persuasive. The argument rests primarily on two contentions. First, that “anonymous or simply unreliable sources are at the heart of” the case Jimenez is trying to make. The problem with that is that there are 107 named sources in the book, far more than the anonymous sources. As far as being unreliable, many of them do come from the meth and drug underground around Laramie. How could it be otherwise when the heart of the story – that Shepard and McKinney were both deeply involved in meth, both as users and as occasional dealers - is in that underground? Obviously, any single source alone is highly questionable. However, for most of his contentions Jimenez has multiple sources. For example, the book cites ten sources that claim that Shepard and McKinney had a relationship of some kind before the murder. Despite those ten sources – including named sources - MediaMatters inexplicably claims “there's no evidence that establishes a link - sexual or not - between him and Shepard prior to the night he and Henderson left a Laramie bar with him…”

There are multiple sources talking about Matthew having a drug problem. (His mother has alluded to that, and has talked about the depression and other issues that resulted from a gang rape in Morocco a few years before his death.) There are multiple sources talking about meth being one of the drugs he used, and claiming that he was an occasional dealer.

There are also multiple sources that claim McKinney was no stranger to gay sex. His girlfriend at the time of the murder, Karen Price, testified at trial about the gay panic defense. But years later she said that was a strategy and wasn’t actually true. "I don't think it was a hate crime at all. I never did," she said. She also said she believes that McKinney is bisexual because “he was always into trying to talk me into having a three-way with one of his guy friends.”

The second basis for the MediaMatters “debunking” is what McKinney himself has said. After all, if the killer himself says that gay panic was his motive, that he hadn’t known Matthew before, that he wasn’t bisexual, etc., that certainly trumps the claims of others. The odd thing, though, is that there is a section later in the article titled “McKinney’s Shifting Stories.” According to former GLAAD official Cathy Renna, “Aaron McKinney has changed his story so many times it's not even worth trying to keep count.” How can you use McKinney’s words as a refutation of Stephen Jimenez in the same story in which you stress his unreliability? At one point while in prison he flatly dismissed the gay panic claim. Answering an interviewer’s direct question as to whether he killed Matthew because he was gay he said: "No. I did not. ... I would say it wasn't a hate crime. All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him."

Many other gay sites have picked up the stories about “dismantling,” “tearing apart,” or “debunking” Jimenez’ book, and have presented them as conclusive proof that the book is a sham. From their perspective there’s no point in even thinking about the book any longer. But as we’ve seen, the dismantling was extraordinarily non-persuasive.

I realize that by now I am coming across as someone trying to defend the book as truth. As I said earlier that is not my intention at all. The book may be complete hokum, with unfounded conclusions based on sources telling lies. For multiple reasons I would prefer that it indeed be shown to be hokum. But while that is possible, it’s also possible that the new book could be essentially true. The articles on gay and progressive sites are wildly partisan, coming from a starting point of believing that the book is a fraud, and with an obvious desire to prove it to be a fraud, rather than a desire to uncover the truth. They do nothing substantial to disprove the claims Jimenez is making.

As much as we may desire it, “The Book Of Matt” simply can’t be dismissed out of hand, as gay sites and the overwhelming majority of their commenters have done. The book has well over one hundred sources, including 107 named sources. It’s not a hodgepodge of anonymous sources as many on our side would have us believe. If a journalist hears a story from one source it doesn’t mean much. No legitimate journalist would consider publishing such a story. But as soon as you have the same story from a second source you have to start seriously considering it.

Consider the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate investigation. Several times they received new and shocking information from an anonymous source, but they couldn’t publish it. But as soon as they got confirmation from a second source they could – and did – publish, even if both sources were anonymous. Jimenez has multiple sources, many of them named, for all of his contentions. He has ten sources that claim a relationship between Shepard and McKinney before the murder. One source could have motivation for lying, but if there are multiple sources the potential unreliability of some of them is dramatically lessened.

Even having 107 named sources doesn’t prove the claims in the book are true. It’s always possible they were massaged, or coordinated in some way, or even manufactured in some cases. But they can’t be cavalierly dismissed. They demand serious consideration, a consideration we aren’t giving them. The unthinking outrage, instant dismissal, and vitriolic personal attacks of the commenters on most gay sites are disheartening, even embarrassing.

The point of this article is not to defend the book, but to examine how my gay and progressive communities are reacting to the book. I find that reaction to be disconcerting, anti-intellectual, and closed-minded. The approach is not one of looking into an intriguing new presentation of an old case. Rather it appears to be an approach based around the fact that the writers and sites DON’T WANT it to be true, and so they will search for rationales to condemn or marginalize it.

As a community we want – hell, we NEED – to maintain our ingrained image of Matthew as an innocent victim of anti-gay hatred, as a personification of all the slights and all the abuse we’ve taken over our lifetimes. But in the service of that need do we become the mirror image of Fox News Nation, do we bury our head in the sand and dismiss without thought something that upsets our perceptions of how things are? Are we rushing to judgment to preserve our version of a beloved Biblical story, as immune to rational thought as the worst evangelical Christian? I’m afraid that’s how it looks to me.

Is this where we’re at as a society? The right wing loudly proclaims the book to be true because they want it to be true, and because they think they can use it to oppose gay rights, while the left wing loudly proclaims the book to be an outrageous sham because that’s what it wants it to be. Neither side is interested in the truth, neither side can see beyond their prejudices and preconceptions, neither side has any room for sober consideration and actual thought. What a brave new world we live in.

Categories: Commentary

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Reply Dennis Stone
10:02 AM on October 21, 2013 
Ha Ha! Good one. Though I'd guess Billy Joel would agree with me that the parallels aren't very strong. Brock was a right-wing crusader and was blinded by the light of his conservative mission. Jimenez went to Laramie overtly to write a strongly pro-gay, pro-Matthew screenplay. He then encountered contrary evidence. Whether or not that evidence was valid, he just wasn't coming at it with the pre-ordained goal of writing a "hit piece." His correspondence with Judy Shepard in those early days proves that. Who knows if the book is true, but it does seem virtually certain that there were multiple sources telling him things along the lines of what he reported.

John says...
I never said I wouldn't read the book; I just said I wouldn't pay full price for it.

My comment was to draw a parallel between this controversy and another where the facts strike me as, well, parallel. I may be wrong, I may be crazy, or I just may be the lunatic who made the first parallel between two similar scenarios.

I could put you on the map!
Reply John
2:48 AM on October 21, 2013 
I never said I wouldn't read the book; I just said I wouldn't pay full price for it.

My comment was to draw a parallel between this controversy and another where the facts strike me as, well, parallel. I may be wrong, I may be crazy, or I just may be the lunatic who made the first parallel between two similar scenarios.

I could put you on the map!
Reply Dennis Stone
12:57 AM on October 21, 2013 
John - You seem to be coming from the position of the non-critical, automatic renunciation of the very idea of the book that I am criticizing. Am I wrong? You said you wouldn't read the book, and since all the gay and progressive sites have been extraordinarily simplistic about it, why on a logical level would you be able to assume what the truth is? Can you at least condemn the vicious, profoundly anti-intellectual comments that I talked about?

John says...
Am I saying that we WILL get a David Brock-style recantation from Jiminez when the money and his career dry up in the near future? No.

Will I be SURPRISED by that if it happens? Not at all.
Reply John
12:05 AM on October 21, 2013 
Am I saying that we WILL get a David Brock-style recantation from Jiminez when the money and his career dry up in the near future? No.

Will I be SURPRISED by that if it happens? Not at all.