Such a brutal crime was unusual, but not unheard of, in Laramie, Wyo. The victim had spent the evening drinking in a bar and accepted a ride from a stranger. It would be the victim’s last. The victim would be assaulted and then left outside of town on the prairie on a cold night — to die. No one would find the victim until the next day. The attacker, who was on drugs, had left his child and the child’s mother at home.
All of America is familiar with the story of Matthew Shepard — the homosexual college student whose death in 1998 made him the leading martyr of the homosexual movement and the poster boy of the push for “hate crimes” laws. Such laws, like the one recently passed by the House and pending in the Senate, are meant to give extra protection against violent acts motivated by bias — including bias against homosexuality.
The facts I described in the first paragraph do, indeed, fit the facts of Matthew Shepard’s death. But he’s not the victim I was referring to. I was writing about Cindy Dixon.
You’ve probably never heard of Cindy Dixon. But she does have a connection with the Shepard case. Her son, Russell Henderson, is one of two men now serving a life sentence in prison for the death of Matthew Shepard. But Cindy Dixon herself was the victim of a crime that had an eerie similarity to the Shepard killing. In January 1999, just three months after Matthew Shepard died, Cindy Dixon was also found dead by the side of a road outside Laramie. Matthew Shepard had met Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney in a bar. Cindy Dixon was picked up on a street corner after staggering out of one. Aaron McKinney brutally beat Matthew Shepard with the butt of a large handgun. Dennis Menefee is believed to have sexually assaulted Cindy Dixon, but her death was from hypothermia. Otherwise, the crimes were nearly identical.
The two men who killed Mr. Shepard — McKinney, who beat him, and Henderson, who tied him to a fence — are each serving two consecutive life terms in prison for felony murder. Dennis Menefee, who left Cindy Dixon in a snowbank, was sentenced to four to nine years in prison for manslaughter.
Was justice served by these disparate outcomes? Of course, there were differences in the facts and circumstances of the two cases. Nevertheless, to look at them side-by-side is to see the inherent inequity in the concept of “hate crimes.” Matthew Shepard did not deserve to die. But neither did Cindy Dixon. Yet under “hate crimes” laws, Matthew Shepard would be entitled to greater protection than Cindy Dixon.
The ultimate irony in all this is that Matthew Shepard’s death was probably not a “hate crime” at all. A courageous investigative report by ABC’s “20/20,” which they unfortunately buried on the day after Thanksgiving in 2004, revealed that most of the people most closely involved in the case say that the attack on Matthew Shepard was motivated by robbery and driven by drugs — not by hostility toward Matthew Shepard’s homosexuality. If he was specifically targeted, it may have been because he was small (only 105 pounds) and well-dressed — not because he was a homosexual.
When asked about the proof that it was a “hate crime,” Cal Rerucha, who prosecuted the case, declared, “Well, I don’t think the proof was there… That was something that they [friends of Shepard] had decided.” Ben Fritzen, a former police detective, said, “Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide… What it came down to, really, is drugs and money.”
McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, said, “I knew that night it was all about getting money… Money to get drugs.” McKinney himself, talking for the first time (he did not testify at his trial), told ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas that “it wasn’t a hate crime… [A]ll I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.” In fact, McKinney said, “I have gay friends. … You know, that kind of thing don’t bother me so much.”
Nevertheless, advocates of a federal “hate crimes law” have named the bill after Matthew Shepard. Facts no longer seem to matter to them — Matthew Shepard has become a mythological figure in the homosexual movement, and they want this bill to be his memorial.
But the principle engraved on the Supreme Court building is “Equal Justice Under Law.” Creating special classes of victims would violate that principle. That’s why senators should reject the “hate crimes” bill — and do so, perhaps, in memory of Cindy Dixon.
Peter Sprigg is vice president for policy at the Family Research Council.