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Man Convicted in ’Date Rape Drug’ Gay Murder

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Dec 4, 2008
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The tragic death of a 23-year-old business intern named Jason Shephard at the hands of convicted killer William Smithson has been seized upon and exploited by right-wing Web publications declaring the case to be "Matthew Shepard in reverse," denouncing hate crimes legislation, and demanding that the mainstream media play up the story.

The details of the case are shocking. Pennsylvania resident William Smithson, who worked for scoreboard manufacturing company Daktronics, allegedly was in the habit of hosting sex parties at his home, with drugs playing a role in the proceedings.

In 2006, when Smithson met Shephard, a young Daktronics intern from the Midwest, he reportedly made sexual advances toward the young man that Shephard rejected.

Then, according to prosecutors in the court case that ended with Smithson’s conviction and a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Smithson slipped the young man a date rape drug and attempted to sexually violate him. In the process, Smithson strangled Shepard, murdering him.

Smithson subsequently filed a missing persons report on Shephard, and even met the young man’s parents at the airport--all while Shephard’s corpse lay wrapped in sheets in Smithson’s basement.

Upon Smithson’s arrest, Shephard’s body was discovered, along with a tarp, indicating that Smithson was on the verge of disposing of the body.

The court was told by Shephard’s former girlfriend that the young man was a clean-living sort who would never have agreed to take drugs.

The ex-girlfriend also testified that Shephard would not have been amenable to advances from gay men.

Pennsylvania newspaper The Daily Local reported in a Nov. 22 story that the prosecution told the court that Shephard’s death resulted from an attempt at "rape gone wrong," and dismissed the defense’s claim that the crime had been carried out by a third man, Fen Bruce Covington, who allegedly had supplied drugs to Smithson the evening of Shephard’s murder, and who was in the house at the time of the young man’s death.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Lawrie rejected that hypothesis, stating, "There’s no one else involved in the killing. He’s it," meaning Smithson, whose home Lawrie described as a "domicile of degradation" where methamphetamine-fueled sex parties took place.

The article quoted Lawrie as saying that, "Jason Shephard fell into the nightmare of [Smithson’s] life" and died as a result.

Smithson was found guilty on all counts, which included an array of offenses on top of the first-degree murder charge. The convict could have received the death penalty, but was sentenced to life in prison.

Media stories described the testimony of grieving father Kyle Shephard, who talked about his son’s good qualities and said that he and his son had spoken on the phone every day up until the young man’s disappearance.

Conservative Christian Web site OneNewsNow devoted a few sentences to the gruesome, sexually charged nature of the crime in a Dec 2 article, foregoing further mention of the young man or his family, save to compare Shephard’s death to that of Matthew Shepard, and to report that "a pro-family activist," Diane Gramley, had raised questions as to why the mainstream media did not publicize the killing more widely.

Gramley, the president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Family Association, contrasted Jason Shephard’s murder with that of Matthew Shepard, who was robbed, beaten, and left to die by assailants outside Laramie, Wyoming, ten years ago.

Matthew Shepard died in a hospital five days after he was discovered in the rural Wyoming countryside, unconscious and tied to a fence. The severe beating he suffered, and the robbery that accompanied the beating, were both hallmarks of anti-gay bias crimes.

The ABC News program 20/20 claimed in a 2004 television report that Shepard’s killing was not a bias crime at all, but merely a robbery that veered into violence and death because the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were addicts who were primed for acts of violence by their need for drugs.

One young man who had been acquainted with the killers, Ryan Bopp, told ABC News, "Aaron and I had been awake for about a week or so prior to this whole thing happening."

Added Bopp, "We were on a hard-core bender that week."

The online version of the story quoted from openly conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, who explained the power behind Shepard’s killing, and what it meant to a community that had long suffered violent physical attack without the police taking notice or interest.

Said Sullivan, "I think a lot of gay people, when they first heard of that horrifying event, felt sort of punched in the stomach.

"I mean it kind of encapsulated all our fears of being victimized."

A similar phenomenon may be at work in the reactions of right-wing publications to the gruesome murder of Jason Shephard. At the time of Smithson’s 2006 arrest,FreeRepublic.com posted a Sept. 26, 2006 story from the Aberdeen American News under the headline "Details of student’s death emerge (Matthew Shepard in reverse)." The article described Jason Shephard as "a staunch Republican who liked to talk about his faith."

OneNewsNow quoted Gramley as saying that the media was employing a "double standard" when it came to reporting on the death of a young man with a similar surname who had been killed by a homosexual.

Gramley declared that "Jason Shephard’s murder has been under the radar screen--and basically, unless you’re in Pennsylvania monitoring this kind of stuff, you don’t hear about it.

"But Matthew Shepherd? Everyone in the country knows who Matthew Shepherd is."

Gramley claimed that the media’s lack of response in the Jason Shephard murder amounted to a "deafening" silence, and went on to attack hate crimes legislation as a push by gay activists seeking "special rights."

Said Gramley, "The murders of both Matthew Shepard and Jason Shephard were tragic, but one murder is being used by homosexual activists to push their agenda of special rights."

Added Gramley, "Murder is murder and increased penalties for attacking a specially protected group listed in a hate crimes law is a waste of everyone’s time and resources."

Continued Gramley, "Such a law creates unequal protection under the law."

Gramley then referenced two other murders purportedly committed by gay men.

As reported at EDGE and elsewhere, a recent report from the FBI identifies rates of bias crimes as falling, except for those crimes targeting two specific classes of victims: Jews and gays.

Hate crimes legislation provides for enhanced penalties for those convicted of targeting individuals based on race, disability, religion, and other factors, including, in some states (but not all), sexual orientation and gender identity / gender expression.

There is no provision in federal law for enhanced penalties for crimes committed against victims due to real or perceived sexuality or gender identity / gender expression.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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