Jesse Dirkhising was a teenager from Prairie Grove, Arkansas. On September 26, 1999, he stayed over with 2 men, with his parents' permission, who bound, drugged, tortured and raped him. He died from the drugs, and asphyxia.
Because he was at the mens' home with approval from his parents, the defense argued that he was complicit in the sexual acts that led to his death, and argued that the death was therefore accidental. However, because he was a minor and the men were adults, the idea that the sex was consensual wasn't upheld.
Given some similarities in the case to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the 2 cases were compared and contrasted often in the media.
BACKGROUND AND MURDER
Jesse was only 13 years old at the time of his death, attending the 7th grade in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, living with his parents, Tina and Miles Yates.
The man who would ultimately be charged with Jesse's murder, Davis Carpenter, was 38 years old, living about 30 miles away. He lived in an apartment with his 22-year-old boyfriend Joshua Macave Brown. Carpenter owned a beauty salon, was friends with Jesse's parents, and so staying the night with them was not uncommon on weekends. However, Brown had been sexually molesting the 13-year-old for months before his death, though the 22-year-old claimed it was consensual. Jesse's family had only been told that their son was helping the men out at the salon.
On September 26, 1999, police responded to a 911 call in Rogers, Arkansas, to the home of Davis Carpenter and Joshua Brown. There, they found Jesse tied to a mattress with his ankles, knees, and wrists bound with duct tape and belts. He had also been gagged with his underwear, a bandana, and duct tape.
Brown offered to the police that they had given him an enema of urine dosed with amitriptyline, an antidepressant. Police quickly found that he had been raped repeatedly over a period of hours, but further investigation revealed that it was over a 2-day period that Jesse had been raped and sodomized with various objects. Apparently, it wasn't until the men took a break to eat that they realized the child was not breathing. After a failed attempt at resuscitation, they called 911.
At the age of 13, Jesse died in the hospital from both the drug injection, and asphyxia.
Inside the home, police found pedophilic materials, including instructions on how to sedate a child, a diagram of how to tie up and position a child, and notes and fantasies about molesting children. They speculated that the 2 grown men planned out the assault, and then went through with it.
Brown admitted in a statement that he had been engaging in "horseplay" (molestation) of Jesse for 2 months prior to his death, but noted that Jesse was a willing participant. However, given his age, Jesse was legally incapable of providing informed consent for sexual activity. Also, if you are 22 and your "sexual partner" is 13, not only are you a rapist, but you're also a pedophile.
Carpenter and Brown were both charged with capital murder and 6 counts of rape, making them both eligible for the death penalty in Arkansas. This was the first conviction for either party, as neither had a criminal record. They were tried separately.
The prosecutors argued that Jesse had died during a planned sexual assault, while the defense argued that Jesse had unfortunately died in an accident during sexual acts that he was complicit in. Luckily, the jury did not buy the argument. There are 3 obvious issues with the defense's argument.
First and foremost, no child is complicit in something like this. He was 13 years old. It isn't insane to believe that a 13-year-old may want to have sex with an older man, or that he might be into BDSM. It is insane to believe that over a 2-day period, he consented to being drugged, raped, and sodomized by 2 men who left him tied up while they ate, slept, and lived.
But okay, you believe that somehow that was the sexual fantasy of a 13-year-old. Then, there's the fact that he was drugged. You are not capable of informed consent while under the influence. That's why you shouldn't have sex with someone while they are drunk, or, oh, I don't know, after you gave them an enema filled with a lethal dose of drugs. Even if it was 100% his will, and if he was of age, it would still be rape and not a consensual engagement because he was under the influence of enough drugs to kill him.
And yet, none of that matters because they were in their 20s and 30s and he was in middle school. He couldn't consent, legally, because of his age. He was a kid, and they were adult men. It wasn't an accident, 2 pedophiles were committing rape, and they killed him.
But, like I said, the jury thankfully understood that. In March of 2001, Brown was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape, and was sentenced to life in prison. Carpenter got the same charges and same sentence. Carpenter claimed that Brown was the only one who was actually engaging in anything, while he sat back and "directed" the ordeal. They are both serving their sentences in Arkansas.
MEDIA COVERAGE AND SARA GETS ON A SOAPBOX
Originally, Jesse's murder did not get much coverage outside of regional newspapers in Arkansas, with virtually no national press. Once it did get press, the coverage wasn't as much about the murder as it was about the lack of press it received.
On October 22, 1999, about a month after his death, The Washington Times ran a story titled: Media tune out torture death of Arkansas boy, and focused on how Jesse's death's lack of coverage contrasted to the nearly constant coverage of Matthew Shepard's murder the year prior. The focus of the story was that, in a day and age where everybody wanted to be very careful about no offending the LGBTQ+ community in the press, that they were wary about reporting on a story where the perpetrators were gay themselves. "Had he been openly gay and his attackers heterosexual, the crime would have led all the networks. But no liberal media outlet has as its villains 2 gay men," said Brent Bozell, a media critic.
And unfortunately, once the story broke, it got into the hands of conservative commentators everywhere, where the homosexuality of the perpetrators was attributed to the crime. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan noted that "showing gay men as sadistic barbarians does not fit the villian-victim script of our cultural elite."
You can draw a parallel to how race-relations are reported on today, right? For instance, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were both killed by police officers in close time-proximity, and, like Matthew Shepard, it was the face of the media for months. Then, Cannon Hinnant, a 5-year-old white child was killed by a black man, and people were outraged at the lack of media coverage. And, like in the case of Jesse Dirkhising, conservative political commentators alluded to the fact that a black man killing a child didn't align to the "Black people are victims" narrative. Essentially, in both cases, the conservative viewpoint is: "Why should I care that a minority is killed, when that same type of minority also kills?" And secondly, "why are they treated differently by the media?"
So I'll answer both questions. First, why should you care that a minority is killed when that minority may also be a killer... Um, because every single GROUP of people has killers within them? You can be outraged and heartbroken that Breonna Taylor died while knowing that Black people still kill white people every day. Should we not mourn the deaths of white people because they are more commonly serial killers or mass shooters? Life is not one-dimensional. You can fight for justice for Black Americans while still condemning Black Americans who commit murder. (In the same way that you can support the police while condemning them for brutality.)
So, why is the media coverage so different? Why did George Floyd/Breonna Taylor get so much press, but Cannon Hinnant didn't? Why did Matthew Shepard get so much coverage, but Jesse Dirkhising didn't? It boils down to the nature of the crime, and what is newsworthy. In 2020, race relations are at a high and police brutality has been a continued issue in recent years. Both were innocent Black people killed by police, which doesn't happen everyday, but still happens too often. That is extremely timely and newsworthy. Whereas it is deeply heartbreaking that a child was killed, people (and kids) are shot and killed every day. We can't report on every single one at a national level. It isn't "timely" because murder is, unfortunately, evergreen content. It doesn't speak to a massive larger issue in our country. It is just heartbreaking, but is it newsworthy on a national level? No.
In the same way, Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay by 2 homophobic people in a hate crime. Rights for and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community were a hot topic of conversation in the late 90s, and his death was further fuel in that fire. Again, while Jesse's death was horrifying and heartbreaking, rape and murder happen all the time. It wasn't a testament to the violence of homosexuals, but just another story in a long list of people (primarily women/girls, but men/boys too) who have died at the hands of a rapist or pedophile. It wasn't timely or national news that spoke to a deeper part of our country. Just terrible and heartbreaking.
"Matthew Shepard died not because of an all-too-common sex crime, but because of prejudice. Essentially, Shepard was lynched; taken from a bar, beaten, and left to die because he was the vilified "other" whom society has often cast as an acceptable target of abuse; Dirkhising was just 'another' to a pair of deviants. And while child abuse is unfortunately no big news, lynching still is," Jonathan Gregg wrote in Time.
But much like Cannon Hinnant, Jesse became sort of a poster-boy for conservatives who didn't want to understand the plight of homosexuals in the United States in the 90s. They were tired of seeing them portrayed as victims through Matthew Shepard, and when an opportunity came to vilify them, they did. It became yet another refusal to admit that people, and groups of people, are not one-dimensional, and refusal to understand that you can be enraged and disheartened by the death of a boy at the hands of 2 gay men while still understanding that gay men often are victims of hate crimes and still deserve protecting.
The death of Jesse Dirkhising is horrific. He was a child, taken advantage of by people he thought he could trust, tortured and murdered for no reason. His parents likely live not only with the sadness of losing their child, but the guilt over providing their permission for him to go to the home where he would eventually be killed. But not all deaths speak to anything broader about our world or the people inside of it. Sometimes, they're just extremely sad. Politicizing a death to take attention away from extremely important topics was as wrong in 1999 as it is now in 2020.
Let him rest in peace.