In the late evening of Saturday, June 6, 1998, in Jasper, Texas, three young white men offered a ride to James Byrd Jr., a middle-aged black man who was walking home from his niece’s bridal shower. After sharing beers and cigarettes with Byrd, they beat him before tying him by the feet to the back of their truck and dragging him for two and a half miles and dumping his decapitated body by the side of the road near a predominantly black church. One of these men, Lawrence Russell Brewer, is set to die in Texas Wednesday evening.
Just four months later, Matthew Shepard, a college student at the University of Wyoming, was horribly beaten and left to die. His killers drove him to the outskirts of town, took his wallet and shoes and tied him to a fence, where they kicked, taunted, and beat him unconscious with the butt of a pistol. They left him tied to the fence in the cold night. Eighteen hours later, he was found by a mountain biker who said he initially thought he was a scarecrow—a comparison that would be much cited in the coverage of the murder.
The horrific murders of these two men provoked a passionate public outrage. The intense media coverage of the murders made moments of violence based in racism and homophobia highly visible, which eventually led to the passage of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The role the media played in cultivating, shaping, and directing the collective emotional response to these heinous crimes is explored in Jennifer Petersen's gripping new book, Murder, the Media, and the Politics of Public Feelings.
Tracing the emotional exchange from news stories to the creation of law, Petersen calls for an approach to media and democratic politics that takes into account the role of affect in the political and legal life of the nation.
Read an excerpt from the book.