Trashing Matthew Shepard

ABC’s ‘20/20’ promises fresh angles, but delivers only speculation

Elizabeth Vargas ends a segment on the ABC news program, “20/20” saying, “Six years later, there is a lot we do not know about the circumstances surrounding the Matthew Shepard murder.”

After viewing this story, which is scheduled to air on Friday, November 26 at 10 p.m., it is clear that there is a great deal that Vargas does not know about the circumstances in the brutal 1998 murder of gay college student Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and this “investigative report” does nothing to elucidate them.

Let’s start with an error.

Vargas claims that she has scored the first media interview with Aaron McKinney who, along with Russell Henderson, was convicted of Shepard’s murder. The two men are now in prison. McKinney’s first media interview came in 1999 with KGAB, a Wyoming radio station.

“20/20” may be accurate in claiming to air the first interview with Henderson.

The basic thrust of the “20/20” piece is that McKinney murdered Shepard in a crystal meth-fueled rage and not because the 21-year-old Shepard was gay. This is an old argument, but ABC has been promoting the story as if they have made a new discovery.

Unfortunately for “20/20,” there is plenty of evidence to support the view that McKinney disliked homosexuals. He admitted to this in a 1999 letter obtained by Denver’s Rocky Mountain News.

Shepard “said he was gay and wanted a piece of me,” McKinney wrote. “Being a verry [sic] drunk homofobick [sic] I flipped out and began to pistol whip the fag with my gun.”

During his trial, McKinney wanted to use a defense—homosexual panic—that relies on anti-gay feelings. Supposedly, McKinney was so disturbed by Shepard making a pass at him that he flew into a violent rage. The judge in McKinney’s case would not allow that defense.

In the statement he gave to police just days after the killing, McKinney referred to Shepard as a “faggot” and a “queer.”

Then, of course, there are the 18 blows that McKinney struck on Shepard’s skull with a three-and-a-half pound gun. If this was a simple robbery, then explain the violence. Explain the kicks to Shepard’s crotch.

In McKinney’s defense, he did tell KGAB in 1999 that the murder was not a hate crime.

“I didn’t target anyone because they were gay,” he said. “I had no idea that Matthew Shepard was gay.”

The problem is that McKinney told police in 1998 after his apprehension that he and Henderson pretended to be gay to lure Shepard to their car so they could rob him. It sure looked as if they knew Shepard was gay. Once in the car, McKinney said, “We’re not fags and we’re going to jack you up.”

Maybe Aaron McKinney is not an anti-gay bigot. Maybe he just speaks and acts like one.

Only a little evidence supports the “meth-made-me-do-it” line. Most of that testimony is recent, in the “20/20 piece,” and it comes from McKinney’s friends.

The one credible “20/20” witness is Cal Rerucha, the Laramie prosecutor who handled the Henderson and McKinney cases. He believes that meth was involved, but that is not the story Rerucha told during McKinney’s 1999 trial.

Back then, it is true, Rerucha did say that Shepard’s sexual orientation played no role in the crime, but he also asserted that McKinney and Henderson hatched a plan to rob Shepard. These were not two men whose minds were bent by meth. They were rational. They made a plan and they carried it out.

Even McKinney told a different story in 1999. He wrote that he was drunk, not high on meth. A friend of his, John Lankford, also asserted that McKinney was drunk in a 1999 interview with KGAB.

“And I asked him, I said, ‘Why the hell did you tie him up?’” Lankford said. “He was like, ‘Well, cause, he wasn’t dead and we wanted to at least get away, you know, we didn’t want him running off and telling somebody before we could figure something out.’ Basically, they were drunk and kind of panicked.”

None of this is in the “20/20” story. But then there are reams of facts concerning this case that the producers chose to ignore. Apparently, they decided that meth drove this murder so any evidence that contradicted their theory was simply left out.

Not content to just do a lousy job, the producers of this piece also threw in some titillating stuff. They asserted that McKinney might be bisexual, that Shepard was also a meth user and that the two men knew each other.

The proof that McKinney is bisexual is slim—one guy claimed to have had a threesome with him. The ABC producers prove that the two men knew each other by asking people who had, at best, a passing acquaintance with one man or the other. The fact that McKinney told “20/20” that he did not know Shepard was not deemed sufficiently compelling to ignore the claim of an acquaintance between the two. “20/20” knows Shepard used meth because “some people say so.”

Wow! When these people want to produce garbage they do not hold back. Even the presence of Andrew Sullivan, with his glib but erudite manner, did not improve the smell of this stinker.

The real problem here is “20/20,” a so-called news magazine, a form of journalism that has always represented the bottom of the barrel when it comes to news. They favor content that is titillating or entertaining, but has no real substance.

You cannot expect the sort of people who work on a “20/20”-type program to cover serious news because they do not have what it takes to produce serious news coverage.

This was obvious in the piece on Matthew Shepard.

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