By: Jorge A. Colon Ortiz (Translated by Karlo Karlo)
Who would ever think that the stories of Jorge Steven Lopez and Matthew Shepard would have some parallels? They were certainly not born within the same social and cultural context, neither born into families with similar economic status. But, they are certainly victims of social prejudice, prior and after their death. They are both victims of hate-crimes.
Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, located in the city of Laramie. On October 7, 1998, Matt (as his friends called him), was taken to the outskirts of the city of Laramie by two men who tied him to a fence and beat him until he was comatose. It wasn’t until 18 hours later that a bicyclist found Matt while passing by in front of what he thought was a scarecrow. Five days later at the city’s regional hospital they young Matt died. Matt's murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Anderson, were found guilty and both sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was a 19-year-old resident of the municipality of Caguas, Puerto Rico. On November 13, 2009, Jorge Steven was murdered, decapitated, dismembered and partially burned by his self-confessed murderer. The murder occurred in the town of Cayey, Puerto Rico. The murderer of Jorge Steven’s trial is yet to begin.
Let’s start with the most obvious similitudes in order to establish parallels between these two cases. Both Jorge Steven and Matt were young, slender, of affable character, pleasant and very much loved by their relatives. They were also openly gay and their parents had embraced their son’s homosexuality and were very supportive respectively. Both young men were brutally murdered in a remote area away from the city.
However, what makes these two cases even more interesting are both the reaction of the murderers and the community at large following the assassination.
Matt's murderers confessed that the reason for beating the youngster was a lesson not to mess with heterosexuals. On the other hand, Jorge Steven’s murderer, Juan Jose Martínez Matos, confessed that he killed his victim after a disappointing gender-clothes association led him to realize that Jorge was not a woman. This hatred towards a particular sector of the population is a homogeneous trait between the two cases.
Moreover, questions, doubts, and moral issues were raised in regards to the innocence of both victims due to the prevalent prejudice towards this particular sector and the issue of homosexuality.
As if the case of Jorge Steven needed more surrealness and indignation, the officer in charge of the investigation, Angel Rodríguez Colón, publicly argued that the victim was partly responsibility for what had happened to him: “These type of people know ahead of time what awaits them when they go out in the streets and get into this.”
In Matt's case, arguments aimed at blaming the victim established that he had sexually flirted with the murderers and this kind of behavior would most likely yield to violent behavior.
Both crimes also raised questions about the sexual orientation of the murderers, in Jorge Steven’s case his murderer pleaded to the press not to be labeled as a homosexual.
Overlapping these two cases is also the issue of possible drug abuse by both murderers. McKinney’s possible addiction to methamphetamine was widely discussed within the U.S. media, while in the case of Juan Jose Martinez it was the use of cocaine. In both cases it was argued whether these substances propelled the murderers to act in such a violent manner as to lead them to brutally kill their victims.
Martinez also confessed to police that while serving in jail for a domestic violence crime he was sexually abused by one of his inmates. In Anderson’s case, his upbringing was plagued with violence and alcoholism, while McKinney suffered serious addiction problems after the death of his mother. It is the murderer’s tumultuous pasts that also make these cases so similar.
Both Jorge Steven and Matt were portrayed as drug users. The fact that it was rumored that Jorge Steven engaged in prostitution generated a sense of moral confision and debate in the community. This issue adds even more complexity to the case.
In Matt's case, shortly after the savage beating, it was discovered that the boy was HIV positive and an acquaintance of Matt stated that he had expressed his desire to commit suicide.
All these elements turn both into events full of social questions and vague justifications of the killers’ behavior. They both raise doubts, also, amongst those who hold religious and moral points of view, which at times have more weight in our society than violence itself.
Gay Panic Defense
The "gay panic defense" is a legal defense that seeks to establish that the murderer had a lapse of insanity tied to a state of violence that led to perpetrate the attack. The genesis of this defense tactic stems from a weak psychiatric defense theory outlined by Dr. Edward J. Kempf in 1920.
The theory states that the perpetrator suffers from psychosis that generates brief hallucinations and violent reactions and accuses the victim of homosexual acts.
Notwithstanding, this defense has not been brought up in a homogeneous and solid manner in the various fora of the United States in which they have been raised.
Aaron McKinney raised this defense in court arguing that he beat Matt because Matt patted his thigh in the direction of his genitals, but the court rejected the argument.
In Martinez's case, his statements adhere to the same defense. The alleged murderer said the memory of the incident at the prison led him to perpetrate such a cruel act when he realized that Jorge Steven was a man and not a woman. It remains to be seen if defense lawyers will use the argument in local courts.
Despite the extensive overlap in the circumstances surrounding the cases and the moral and religious arguments that undermine the events, there has also been a positive side: the reaction of the press and the community to a crime of these dimensions. Both in the case of Matt as in Jorge Steven, media coverage has been intense, and the gay community in general has spilled over into expressions of repudiation of such crimes through demonstrations, marches and vigils.
In short, both the positives and negatives of the reactionary behavior that generated these sad but important events, help to give a homogeneous hue to the analysis in order to understand that the prejudice and public discussions are in fact very similar both communities.