Did Media Hide Gay Murder Case?

ByABC News

April 10, 2001 -- A 13-year-old boy in Arkansas dies after a horrific sexual crime but much of the national media ignore the story. Conservative columnists and other critics think they know why — because the boy's accused killers are gay.

"[The media] doesn't want the public to think about homosexuality and pedophilia and torture and the murder of children," says Don Feder, a conservative columnist at the Boston Herald.

The boy, Jesse Dirkhising, was bound, drugged, tortured and raped for five hours before he died in 1999.

Last month, a jury convicted Joshua Brown, 23, of rape and murder. Brown was sentenced to life in prison without parole, the maximum sentence. Brown's lover, Davis Carpenter, 39, goes on trial next month.

But the case received little attention in the national media. Critics say that is evidence of pro-gay bias, noting that news organizations gave extensive coverage to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was hung on a fence post by two straight men and left to die.

Expected Opponents and One Unexpected Critic

Protesters outside Brown's trial in Bentonville, Ark. held signs that read, "Pro-Gay Media Shame." Conservative and anti-gay groups have made the same argument for months on their Web sites and in their publications.

Their argument was given more weight when it was embraced by one of the country's most provocative gay writers, Andrew Sullivan, in The New Republic.

Sullivan compared media coverage of the two cases, and found what he described as a "staggering" discrepancy. He concluded that the media "hyped" the Shepard case to build support for the inclusion of gays under federal hate crime protection, and ignored the Dirkhising case for fear of feeding anti-gay prejudice.

"I think there is clearly evidence that many in the media decided we're not going to go there because we know it will feed anti-gay prejudice," Sullivan told ABCNEWS.

Shepard Symbolic of a National Issue

Editors at the television networks and major newspapers have responded that they covered the Shepard crime because it was part of a national issue — hate crime legislation.

"For a crime story or a murder story, even a horrific and sad one like [that of] Jesse Dirkhising, to be covered by the national press, I think there has to be an issue of larger social significance attached to it," says Martha Moore, a media reporter for USA Today.

Editors say that while it may seem cold, countless rapes and murders — gay and straight — regularly go unreported in the national media because they are not part of a larger issue.

Horrific Crime

Editors also say that the horrific details of the Dirkhising case made it hard to report.

According to an account Brown gave police after his arrest, he and Carpenter had tied Dirkhising to a bed with duct tape as part of a "game." Then they gave Dirkhising an enema of urine that they had dosed with amitriptyline, an antidepressant and a sedative.

Jesse was gagged with a pair of dirty underwear while Brown raped the boy and Carpenter directed the scene, according to Brown's account. The boy died of suffocation, which Brown said was an accident.

Brown told police he was acting on instructions that Carpenter wrote and drew for him on a pad of paper. Prosecutors plan to use the notes and diagrams as evidence at Carpenter's trial.

Another charge prosecutors intend to make at Carpenter's trial is that the men were planning on other rapes. Prosecutors intend to to submit handwritten short stories that police found in Carpenter's apartment, which were explicit writings envisioning future rapes and tortures, mentioning one local girl by name.

ABCNEWS's Aaron Brown contributed to this report.