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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
December 3, 2004

TV shows report on Matthew Shepard murder is disputed

Cheyenne, Wyoming--Contradicting their prior court testimony, Matthew Shepard�s killers told the ABC news show 20/20 that drugs and robbery were the motivations behind the college student�s brutal beating death.

After meeting Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in a bar in October, 1998 and leaving with them, Shepard was beaten into a coma and tied to a fence in a field. A bicyclist found him the next morning and he died in a hospital five days later.

The incident was widely reported as an anti-gay hate crime, sparked demonstrations across the country and was condemned by President Bill Clinton and Congress. A play and two TV movies were made about the crime and its aftermath.

But according to the 20/20 report aired November 26, a drug-fueled robbery gone wrong was behind Shepard�s death at the hands of McKinney and Henderson, and his sexual orientation had little to do with it.

In a 1998 confession to police and testimony in court, however, McKinney claimed a �gay panic� defense, that Shepard had hit on him and he snapped.

McKinney and Henderson pleaded guilty in exchange for lighter sentences, in McKinney�s case possibly sparing him the death penalty. As part of the plea agreement, McKinney and his attorney agreed not to speak to the press about the case. Henderson, however, made no such promise, and McKinney�s vow was not included in the official sentencing order.

The two men, now both 27, are serving life sentences for murder.

According to their new story, McKinney had been on a days-long methamphetamine binge and planned to rob a drug dealer. Henderson tried to keep him drinking at the bar where they met Shepard long enough that he would forget his plan.

Shepard asked the pair if he could get a ride home. It was on that ride that he was attacked.

McKinney now claims that Shepard offered them drugs in exchange for sex, but he decided to rob Shepard instead.

�Sometimes when you have that rage going through you, there�s no stopping it,� McKinney said, explaining the savage beating after he said Shepard had already handed over his wallet. �I�ve attacked my best friends coming off of meth binges.�

LGBT organizations have pointed to flaws in the ABC story, however, most notably the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

�This piece says much, much more about 20/20 that it does about the murder of Matthew Shepard,� said GLAAD executive director Joan M. Garry. �20/20�s misleading oversimplifications and distortions do a tremendous disservice to a complicated case.�

�This is simply not a credible piece of journalism,� she concluded.

For one, GLAAD contends, many of the people the show interviewed gave contrary testimony in the two men�s trials. Some also repeated those accounts to the press during the trial, including an earlier interview with 20/20 in which McKinney�s girlfriend Kristen Price told of his �homophobic rage.�

A Laramie limousine driver who told 20/20 that Shepard had confided in him that he was HIV-positive had earlier told other news outlets that he had only met the student four days before his murder. Other people�s assertions in the ABC piece run contrary to earlier accounts by Shepard�s close friends.

GLAAD also points out that while 20/20 treats McKinney�s drug use as new information, it was brought up in his trial, in a Harper�s magazine article at the time and in the mainstream media.

20/20�s premise is that Matthew Shepard�s murder is more complicated than it seems,� concludes GLAAD�s list of ten talking points about the report. �But their piece drives the viewer in the opposite direction, attempting to sell audiences on a simplistic notion that if McKinney and Henderson were under the influence of drugs, then anti-gay bias could have played no role whatsoever in their decision to target, beat and murder Shepard.�


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