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ABC's 20/20 Takes Another Look at Matthew Shepard Murder

ABC's 20/20 Takes Another Look at Matthew Shepard Murder

An exclusive by Chad Graham As a former reporter for a couple of large newspapers and the Associated Press, I've covered my share of murders. We reporters steel ourselves against heartbreaking scenes and against spin--from police officials, the grieving families, and the criminals. We peel back the layers to get as close to the truth as possible. We often run into gray situations. The victims were drinking or on drugs. The killers were in a fit of rage due to years of mental problems. Authorities lie. Neighbors spread rumors that are impossible to verify. Six years after the murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, ABC's news division claims to have found previously unexamined layers in the story. For a report scheduled to air Friday, November 26, on the news program 20/20, they went to Laramie, Wyo., to revisit that October night in 1998 when Shepard, 21, was beaten, tied to a fence post, and left for dead. In fact, a viewing of the 20/20 report reveals only two new pieces of information: The network scored a media coup by lining up the first-ever interviews with Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, neither of whom testified in court. (Both pleaded guilty in the murder and are serving consecutive double-life sentences.) By granting the interview, McKinney broke a pledge to Shepard's parents never to speak about the killing. 20/20 anchor and correspondent Elizabeth Vargas reports that ABC wants to set the record straight on a "story that has often been dramatically oversimplified." The network promised an investigative piece that asks, Was this in fact a hate crime? Or was it nothing more than a crystal-meth-fueled robbery? These seem like good questions for a journalist to ask. Right or wrong, gay activists immediately placed Shepard--a young man trying to come to terms with being gay in rural America--on a pedestal. If there is new information showing that the murder was not quite the myth that GLBT Americans have turned it into, then we need to know. Such information does not negate Shepard's death; it does not lessen the need for hate-crimes protection. It makes Shepard more human. It is a warning that alcohol, meth, and homophobia can turn into a deadly situation. But ABC failed in its quest to report "the truth." Instead they have a sloppy, misrepresented mess of disputed facts that does nothing to clarify what happened that night. The killers contradict statements they made at the time; witnesses change or add to their stories; new sources emerge without credibility; and Vargas, whom ABC is trying to make into a star reporter, is far from objective. She asks heavily loaded and leading questions and then spins her sources' answers in the direction she wants the report to take. Vargas is trying to shove the "not a hate crime" theory down the throats of viewers, and nothing is going to stop her. The heart of her case is that both McKinney and Henderson now maintain that they didn't kill Shepard because he was gay. In fact, McKinney claims that he has gay friends and has nothing against gay people. This is vastly different from the "homosexual panic" defense he used in court, claiming his violent rage was the result of Shepard's sexual advances. The killers now say that when they met Shepard at the Fireside Lounge that night, Shepard was drunk and wanted a ride home, asking for sex in return for meth; the story they once told about pretending to be gay to win Shepard's trust is mentioned nowhere in Vargas's report. McKinney says simply that he noticed Shepard was wearing nice clothes and wanted to rob him, and Vargas doesn't even ask whether they picked Shepard out of the crowd at the bar because he appeared to be gay and vulnerable. Nor does she blink when McKinney states, inconsistently, that it was when Shepard grabbed his leg that he began beating him with a gun. Vargas spends the rest of her time trying and failing to verify various rumors. Mysterious sources claim that Shepard knew McKinney well before the murder, that McKinney was bisexual, and that Shepard was a "party boy" addicted to meth. What proof does she offer? New police reports? Officials with information? Nope. Vargas relies on a reformed meth addict, a friend of McKinney and Henderson; McKinney's girlfriend, Kristen Price, who gleefully comes up with a new version of events; Doc O'Connor, the now-notorious limo driver who befriended Shepard and suggests that McKinney is bisexual (as does McKinney's girlfriend); and a couple of other shadowy figures. Two women, one of whom does not give her last name, claim they saw McKinney and Shepard hanging out. One claims to know that Shepard and McKinney were acquainted before the murder because she partied with them in O'Connor's limo. Cut back to O'Connor--Vargas doesn't even ask him whether that incident ever took place. One is forced to conclude that she didn't like his answer and left it out of the report in favor of his lurid tale of a three-way with himself, McKinney, and a woman, which McKinney denies then in the following scene. McKinney also denies having met Shepard previously. Who among these people can be believed about anything? Henderson, McKinney, and Price have good reason to make themselves look better by erasing the homophobia they once hid behind, particularly since the killers are seeking federal review of their sentences, claiming they were railroaded. Judy Shepard talks about her son at the beginning of the report. In all of her years of interviews, she has never tried to paint Matthew as perfect. She knew the demons he struggled with and declines to address whether he was HIV-positive or had used drugs. Instead, she has turned the tragedy into a movement to advance hate-crimes legislation and to promote tolerance. It is hard to imagine that she realized what conclusions 20/20 would draw or even that the network would be speaking with McKinney, who had promised her and her husband, Dennis, his silence. ABC owes the Shepard family an apology. Judy and Dennis have already issued their own statement through their foundation's Web site: "On November 9, ABC-TV announced their intention to air a report on the hate crime and murder of our son, Matthew. The ABC press release was sensationalistic in nature, and its implications have caused many of us to be concerned. As a reputable news magazine show, 20/20 has an obligation to its viewers to present fair and truthful reporting, regardless of the subject matter. Based on the problematic wording of their press release, it appears that 20/20 may have strayed from this policy in the interest of strong ratings. We appreciate everyone's concern. We will be issuing a more complete statement following 20/20's broadcast." The network should have used its time to conduct an investigative piece examining the disturbing rise in hate crimes across America. Or maybe they should simply send Vargas back to journalism school. Advocate news features editor Graham formerly worked at the Associated Press, The Des Moines Register, and The Hollywood Reporter. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune and St. Petersburg Times.

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