Recount: A Magazine of Contemporary Politics

Rewriting the Motives Behind Matthew Shepard’s Murder

By Aaron Parsley | Dec 8, 2004 Print

Hindsight is 20/20, but for ABC’s Friday night newsmagazine by the same name, hindsight is causing a stir. Following the release of an FBI report, “Hate Crime Statistics 2003,” which showed that 1,430 hate crimes, including six murders, were committed as a result of a sexual orientation bias, it was not surprising that 20/20 dedicated its hour-long broadcast to the murder of Matthew Shepard, one of the most famous hate crimes in recent history. What did surprise is that the report retold Shepard’s murder as the result of a drug-fueled robbery that had nothing to do with hatred.

The FBI report, released Nov. 22, ranked sexual orientation bias as the second-highest motive for all hate crimes and the highest for those that result in a homicide. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest gay rights lobby, the numbers in the report represent only the tip of the iceberg. “Reporting these crimes is voluntary for local jurisdictions and hate crimes often go underreported by victims due to fear and stigmatization,” Cheryl Jacques, president of the HRC, said in a press release. Also left out of the figures, according to Jacques, are transgender victims of hate crimes. In addition to the six murders reported in the FBI’s statistics, 21 people were remembered on Nov. 20, the Sixth Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, which honors those who died as a result of hate violence against transgendered people.

In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 22-year-old gay college student from Laramie, Wyoming, was whipped severely with a .357-Magnum pistol and then tied to a remote fence and left to die. Aaron McKinney and Russell A. Henderson were charged with the murder. Both confessed. Both are currently serving double life sentences for the crime. Henderson pleaded guilty, but McKinney’s lawyers hoped to use a “gay panic” defense. According to a 1999 article in The Denver Post by Susan Estrich, the attorneys claimed their client was provoked to kill Shepard because of his own homophobia and should therefore be guilty of a lesser crime. “He was trying to reduce his culpability from murder to manslaughter by establishing that he was provoked to act” to defend against sexual advances by Shepard. The judge refused to allow the defense and the jury convicted McKinney of felony murder.

Shepard quickly became a reluctant martyr for the queer community and a symbol of the community’s struggle for equality and protection from violence. In addition to raising awareness about hate crimes and homophobia in American culture, the story inspired the Matthew Shepard Foundation (a non profit run by his mother) and The Laramie Project (a play by Moisés Kaufman, which was also made into an HBO movie).

“The Matthew Shepard Story: Secrets of a Murder,” which aired Nov. 26, promised shocking new information about the case. But it contained mostly speculation, scandalous details, unreliable new witnesses and revised confessions. The premise of the report by Elizabeth Vargas was that McKinney attacked Shepard during a robbery under the influence of crystal meth and that the murder had nothing to do with the victim’s sexuality. The report used sensational language to describe “the high plains of Wyoming, a lonely place to die,” where “the life drained out of” Shepard who had been “beaten so badly that the only part of his face that was not drenched in blood was where his tears had washed it away.”

Vargas went out of her way to show that McKinney and Henderson did not hate gay people. She questioned previous reports that characterized them as “rednecks” (her word), and tells viewers that in fact they had steady jobs and girlfriends. Vargas reported that Shepard’s friends promoted the hate crime theory in the days following the attack. The report suggested that McKinney himself was bisexual, even though in an interview with Vargas, McKinney denies ever having sexual contact with another man. She also suggested that Shepard and McKinney were not strangers, but that they knew each other from Laramie’s underground drug scene. McKinney also denies knowing Shepard in the interview. On both questions, Vargas uses other witnesses to discredit these denials, but the audience is expected to believe his answer when Vargas asks McKinney directly if he killed Shepard because he was gay. “No, I did not,” he told Vargas. “I would say it wasn’t a hate crime. All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.” It is in this meandering path around unreliable sources and recantations that Vargas draws her conclusion that Shepard’s murder was not a hate crime.

She also reported lurid gossip about Shepard and McKinney of questionable news value. A limo driver, Doc O’Connor, claimed that Shepard was HIV-positive. He also told Vargas that he had a sexual encounter with McKinney. One of Shepard’s friends, Tina LaBrie, also appeared in the broadcast as a source on Shepard’s own drug habits. “He said ‘Everywhere I move, it seems like I get sucked into the drug scene,’” LaBrie told Vargas.

While some television critics have applauded the report, the gay press and gay activists have slammed it for being irresponsible journalism that reported nothing new. Virginia Heffernan, in her television review for The New York Times, praises Vargas for her report and for possibly saving a dying news genre. “Don’t count out television news yet,” she wrote in her introduction. “The magazine shows might yet make a comeback.” She called the episode “intellectually brave” and a worthwhile revisionist investigation that seeks to overturn the “parable version of the event.” For being so skeptical of television news, Heffernan should have done her own reporting before singing such praises.

Judy Shepard was available for comment. Matthew’s mother, who appeared in the report, told that the editing by 20/20 of her interview left out all her comments regarding the show’s potential bias. “My remarks were reduced to a few very personal maternal comments taken out of context to make it appear as if I agreed with 20/20’s theories,” she said in the article. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Gay City News also criticized the report in an article headlined “Trashing Matthew Shepard.” Reporter Duncan Osborne immediately discredited the report for claiming to land the first media interview with McKinney. “McKinney’s first media interview came in 1999 with KGAB, a Wyoming radio station,” Osborne wrote. Claiming to be first sets Vargas up nicely for a chance to reveal the emerging truth behind Shepard’s murder: McKinney may have killed a gay person for drugs, but he doesn’t actually hate gay people. “This is an old argument, but ABC has been promoting the story as if they have made a new discovery,” Osborne said. He also pointed to “reams of evidence” left out of Vargas’ report, including a statement McKinney gave to police just days after the killing, in which he referred to Shepard as a “faggot” and a “queer.”

Osborne also cites a letter obtained by Denver television reporter Rick Sallinger of News4 and reported in the Rocky Mountain News in 1999. According to this letter, attributed to McKinney, he learned that Shepard was gay, he “flipped out” and beat the college student with a gun. Shepard “said he was gay and wanted a piece of me,” according to the letter. “Being a verry (sic) drunk homofobick (sic) I flipped out and began to pistol whip the f-- with my gun.”

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released a viewer’s guide which addressed each of the assertions made in Vargas’ report. The guide systematically discredited sources, pointed out facts that 20/20 ignored, and showed a lack of evidence for the new theories.

One example is Kristen Price, McKinney’s girlfriend at the time of the murder and a key witness at the trial. She told Vargas she made up the story about McKinney’s homophobic rage. “I don’t think it was a hate crime at all,” she said. “I never did.” But Price spoke with 20/20 in 1998 and testified in 1999. “They just wanted to beat him bad enough to teach him a lesson, not to come on to straight people, and don’t be aggressive about it anymore,” she said in her first interview with 20/20.

“Did she commit perjury in McKinney’s trial?” GLAAD asks. “And why does 20/20 put forward as fact the statements of someone who’s admitted to deceiving and lying to them in the past?” Good question.

Vargas quoted the prosecutor in the case against McKinney to bolster the theory that drugs made McKinney beat Shepard in the head with a pistol. “The methamphetamine just fueled to this point where there was no control,” Carl Rerucha said. “It was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. It was a murder that was once again driven by drugs.” The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) addressed the drug theory in a reaction to the episode. “That drugs may have played a role in a violent crime and in this murder is not news,” said Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the organization. “Everyone knows that drugs and alcohol often play a part in hate crimes and bias-related incidents.”

So if Vargas was reporting nothing new, what was the purpose of the report?

“Exploring and re-examining the facts around that murder in a very thoughtful and in-depth way is the very essence of responsible journalism,” Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC News spokesperson, told the New York Post.

Based on the reaction of the gay community, the assertions made by 20/20 are irrelevant at best. Reducing a complex motive to a single element in a murder which involved drugs, money, and sexuality is hardly the “essence of responsible journalism” at a time when hate crimes are on the rise. According to Patton, “one has to question the motivation of the show’s producers in not only attempting to engage in revisionist history, but in doing so at this point in time, as the nation’s lesbian and gay community is fighting for its life to an extent not seen in years.”

Aaron Parsley can be reached at .

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