Gay-panic defense unreasonable excuse

Aaron McKinney was convicted yesterday of a felony murder for the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. The jury’s decision to convict McKinney, and District Judge Barton Voigt’s decision to bar lawyers from using a “gay panic” defense, points to a thoughtful and reasonable reaction to an almost unimaginably brutal and pointless crime.
A little over a year ago, Shepard was kidnapped by McKinney and Russell Henderson, a friend of McKinney, after luring him outside of a bar. The two men tied Shepard to a fence and pistol-whipped him into a coma. Shepard died in a hospital five days later, never regaining consciousness.
Henderson did not undergo a trial, pleading guilty in April. He is currently serving two life sentences.
In McKinney’s trial, his lawyer, Dion Custis, attempted to portray McKinney as a chronic drug abuser whose life had caused him to have a violent hatred for homosexuals. The lawyer claimed McKinney suffered temporary insanity and killed Shepard in a fit of “homosexual rage.”
Judge Voigt’s decision to disallow the defense was wise. The defense relies on stereotypes and homophobia to allow violent individuals to portray themselves as victims, rather than as criminals. The defense portrays the actual victim as a sexual predator and attempts to convince the jury the victim’s advances were so repugnant that the accused resorts to violence.
Entirely disallowing this defense is a blow to individuals who portray homophobia as normal and justifiable. Hatred of homosexuals is no more justified than hatred of someone with a different skin color or who practices a different religion and should not be accepted as a defense in the eyes of the law.
Unfortunately, the so-called gay-panic defense has worked in the past. Last year, on the same day Shepard was found tied to a fence in Laramie, a jury in Honolulu found Stephen Bright guilty of only a misdemeanor after he beat a gay man to death after the man made sexual advances toward Bright.
Although Judge Voigt’s decision holds no legal weight outside of Wyoming, it is hopeful that his ruling will convince other judges to reject the gay-panic defense in other states.
The jury’s decision also indicates serious consideration of the crimes and an unwillingness to allow bias to enter into their decisions. The jury convicted McKinney of a felony murder — a murder that takes place while another felony is being committed. In this case, McKinney was also convicted of aggravated robbery and kidnapping. The jury acquitted McKinney of first-degree murder, not believing the crime had been premeditated. Their choices are fair and reasonably punish McKinney for the crimes he committed.
What happened to Matthew Shepard was horribly vicious, and the heinous nature of the crimes should not be forgotten. The actions of the jury and judge in Shepard’s case, though, indicate the hatred felt by McKinney and Henderson is no longer as predominant in American society as it once was, but is instead giving way to a more accepting view of homosexuality.