Why One Murder Makes Page One and Another Is Lost in the News Briefs

  • Share
  • Read Later

As the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's murder last October played out — culminating Thursday with the sentencing of Aaron McKinney to two life sentences — an equally disgusting crime was committed in Arkansas, where two men raped and killed a 13-year-old boy. That incident received relatively little coverage, while Shepard leaves a story that will probably endure for years to come as a symbol of intolerance and lowest-common-denominator conformity.

So when TIME.com started getting e-mail from people wondering why the media weren't paying more attention to the Arkansas incident, we decided to examine whether we and other media outlets had been guilty of some sort of unfairness. (Actually, the media did pay attention, if only at the lack of ink the story generated. As an editorial in the conservative Washington Times fumed, if Shepard had become a cause clbre, why didn't this rate the same treatment?) Could it be because we in the the media elite were unwilling to publicize crimes committed by homosexuals because it didn't suit our agenda? The next stop in that line of reasoning was clear: That news is controlled by a bunch of gay-loving liberals only too happy to wield a double standard.

What was that story we supposedly buried? According to news reports — and there were indeed news reports, both locally and on the national newswires — Davis Don Carpenter, 38, and Joshua Macave Brown, 22, from Benton County, Ark., participated in the rape and murder of Jesse Dirkhising, a 13-year-old from Prairie Grove. Brown strapped the boy to a mattress and stuffed underwear in his mouth, held in place with a bandanna, and repeatedly sodomized him while Carpenter watched. The boy died from asphyxiation.

A red herring worth addressing at the outset is the failure to distinguish between homosexuality and pedophilia, which creates a false parallel at the core of the Times' argument. A double standard would be in effect had the media ignored a situation where two gay men killed a straight man for being straight. But sex with children is a crime regardless of the sexes involved, and is not synonymous with homosexuality. Brown and Carpenter were roommates, and the details of their relationship have not been revealed, but evidence taken from their house — handwritten fantasy scenarios involving children, as well as diagrams and instructions on how to sedate, tie up and position a child — indicates a strong interest in pedophilia.

The most salient difference between the Shepard case and this one, however, is that while Shepard's murderers were driven to kill by hate, the boy's rape and death was a sex crime. It was repulsive, unconscionable — and the predictable pastime of perverted criminals. It was the kind of depraved act that happens with even more regularity against young females, and, indeed, if the victim had been a 13-year-old girl, the story would probably never have gotten beyond Benton County, much less Arkansas. (There is, of course, a double standard there.) Matthew Shepard died not because of an all-too-common sex crime, but because of prejudice.

Essentially, Shepard was lynched — taken from a bar, beaten and left to die because he was the vilified "other," whom society has often cast as an acceptable target of abuse; Dirkhising was just "another" to a pair of deviants. And while child abuse is unfortunately no big news, lynching still is. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were not satisfying some animalistic sexual impulse, they were bullies who gratuitously killed someone out of hate for being different than they were. It wasn't about them, it was about Matthew Shepard. Because they dramatically reflected some of society's darkest influences — an acceptance of the persecution of gays — the media saw fit to hold the case up as an example. No one could justify the behavior of Dirkhising's assailants; there is no "pedophile rage" defense. But many in our society think that beating up gays is justifiable, and place the blame on the victims. And while such attitudes may change, sexual deviancy is timeless.

The reason the Dirkhising story received so little play is because it offered no lessons. Shepard's murder touches on a host of complex and timely issues: intolerance, society's attitudes toward gays and the pressure to conform, the use of violence as a means of confronting one's demons. Jesse Dirkhising's death gives us nothing except the depravity of two sick men. There is no lesson here, no moral of tolerance, no hope to be gleaned in the punishment of the perpetrators. To be somehow equated with these monsters would be a bitter legacy indeed for Matthew Shepard.

TIME Daily poll: Hate Crime Laws