The Gruesome Death of Shorty Hall: Indiana's Matthew Shepard

The story of a horrifying murder in rural Indiana has begun making the rounds of the blogs, where it's being compared to the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard.
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The story of a horrifying murder in rural Indiana has begun making the rounds of the blogs, where it's being compared to the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard.

But the story's twists and turns, as disgusting as they are tragic, have gone largely unreported outside blogs like Daily Kos and Towleroad and a crusading local paper in Indiana, the Bloomington Alternative. And therein hangs a tale.

The victim in this new outrage wasn't called Aaron 'Shorty' Hall for nothing. Shorty was 5-foot-4 and weighed a mere 100 pounds. In beefy rural Indiana, that passes for almost invisible.

On April 12, Shorty was allegedly beaten to death by Coleman King, 18, and Garrett Gray, 19. They subsequently confessed to police that the beating began when Shorty allegedly made a gay pass at them while they were all drinking beer at Gray's home.

The description of what happened next is horrific, a savage assault that eerily echoes the tortuous death of Matthew Shepard. This time it took the form of a relentless beating that went on for several hours at Gray's house before Shorty was finally dragged down the wooden stairs, his head banging loudly on each step.

King and Gray told cops they beat Hall again at the bottom of the stairs, threw him into a pickup truck and continued beating him as they drove down a remote dirt road.

Once there, one of them had the audacity to send a friend a cellphone photo of the dying Shorty. Then they dumped him, naked but still alive, in a ditch. According to weather reports, it was 39 degrees that night.

The next morning they returned and found Shorty's broken and lifeless body in a field near the ditch. He had apparently crawled out for help, found none, and died alone in the dirt.

A few days later they returned, wrapped the body in a tarp and hid it in Gray's garage, where police found it after being alerted by the recipient of the cellphone photo.

A sensational torture/murder hate crime like this seems like a slam dunk for major media attention, but so far it has received almost none.

Perhaps part of the reason is one of the case's odd twists: Some have publicly suggested that in fact Shorty made no sexual advance on Gray and King and that he was not, in fact, gay.

Instead, it's been suggested that the two teens cooked up the gay angle because they believed that in homo-hating Indiana, it would help excuse their murder.

In the twisted teenage wasteland of their minds, the theory goes, the so-called 'gay panic' defense is still operative in Indiana: If you simply say your murder victim made a queer pass at you, you'll probably get off lightly.

It's impossible to tell if this version is true. But that's no reason for the media to ignore this story. In fact, in a weird way the tale is at least as significant if Shorty was not gay.

The reason begins with the fact that Indiana remains one of just five states that refuses to enact a hate crimes bill. Why? Because such a bill would cover -- you guessed it -- gays.

The latest version failed in the state legislature again this February, and the executive director of the antigay American Family Association of Indiana, Micah Clark, credited "concerned Christians" with scuttling it.

If such Christians hadn't furiously lobbied the Indiana Statehouse about this bill, Clark said, it "would have passed easily." He smugly added, "The good guys won on this issue."

Shorty Hall's lonely death indicates otherwise.

I'm not suggesting that if Indiana had passed a hate crimes bill last February then this horrific murder would not have happened. But I am suggesting what law schools have taught for generations: "The law is a great teacher."

One of the reasons for hate crimes laws is to teach: to send a powerful lesson that the kind of savage bigotry that leads to violence and murder based on race, ethnicity and other factors -- including sexual orientation -- is a profound offense against the moral foundations of our society.

Hate crime laws send the lesson that violators will not be treated more lightly for such crimes, as they traditionally were, but punished more sternly.

When a state like Indiana stands almost alone by refusing to send such a message, it unavoidably sends the opposite message. And in rural Indiana it does so in a place teeming with vengeful right wing Christians who continue to infect the young with a vile hatred of gays. That leads to a combustible combination.

So in this tragic case, whether Shorty was gay or not, or made a pass or not, isn't the larger point.

The larger point is that Shorty's killers appear to have imbibed a profound lesson from the homo-hating Christians of their state and the simpering cowards in their state legislature, who would apparently pass a hate crimes bill "easily" if it didn't include the gays despised by so-called concerned Christians.

That lesson is this: If a queer comes on to you in Indiana and you kill him, pipe up about it because you just might get a pass. And hey, if you happen to kill someone who isn't queer, just call him queer anyway and you still might get a pass.

Concerned Christians in Indiana may have no problem with that. But I'm betting that Jesus would take a dimmer view.

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