An investigative report by the ABC News program, “20/20,” scheduled for Nov. 26, promises to shed new light on the murder of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, whose burned and battered body was found in the snow outside Laramie in October 1998.
Shepard, according to the findings of the court, was kidnapped and brutally beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson after he made a sexual advance at one of the two men at a bar. According to McKinney’s then-girlfriend, both men pretended to be homosexual in order to lure Shepard outside and rob him.
Shepard was later found brutally beaten, robbed and tied to a fence. He died five days later of massive head injuries.
Shepard’s death and the trials of McKinney and Henderson galvanized homosexuals and their supporters across the country, fueling the call for state and federal ‘hate-crime’ legislation. Conservative Christians were singled out as having created a “climate of anti-gay hate” where such a brutal act could happen.
NBC’s Today Show took the lead, focusing on a Christian ad campaign running at the time that said homosexuals could change their orientation.
David Gregory narrated: “The ads were controversial for portraying gays and lesbians as sinners who had made poor choices, despite the growing belief that homosexuality may be genetic … Have the ads fostered a climate of anti-gay hate that leads to incidents like the killing of Matthew Shepard? Gay rights activists say the ads convey a message that gay people are defective.”
But now, that “climate” is being called into question by ABC News. According to one person who viewed a rough cut of the “20/20″ episode, the report raises the possibility that Shepard was targeted for his money, not over his homosexuality, according to the New York Post.
Henderson and McKinney, both speaking for the first time since being sentenced to double life terms, now deny that Shepard’s homosexuality played a role in their decision to murder him. McKinney has been barred from speaking to the press about the crime as a condition of a plea bargain with prosecutors who promised to reward his vow of permanent silence by not seeking the death penalty. Legal experts do not expect prosecutors to pursue re-sentencing now that he has decided to talk.
ABC News promises “surprising revelations, including [an] underground world of methamphetamine use that may have contributed to the crime and whether or not Shepard knew his killers.”
That the iconic crime may prove to have been “just” a violent drug-related mugging has understandably caused anger among some homosexuals.
“There is simply no way to ‘de-gay’ the murder of Matthew Shepard,” Michael Adams, education director at Lambda Legal, tells 365Gay.com. “There were the statements of the murders at the time and the defense even argued ‘gay panic’ claiming that Shepard had come onto them.”
By all appearances, concludes Adams, the program “serves no purpose and does a disservice to the memory of Matthew. Sadly Matthew Shepard is no longer here to tell his version of the story.”
“Does it make Aaron McKinney and Russell A. Henderson any less guilty of the crime that they committed? Absolutely not,” says Romain Patterson, one of Shepard’s close friends. “You just don’t kick someone in the crotch over and over again unless you have a real problem with their sexuality,” she says. “To imply otherwise, in my opinion, is irresponsible, and I think it’s irresponsible to be giving a voice to two very guilty men.”
But ABC News defends its investigation. “Exploring and re-examining the facts around that murder in a very thoughtful and in-depth way is the very essence of responsible journalism. This new information in no way diminishes the importance of the national conversation that took place after Matthew Shepard’s murder,” says spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “The murder of Matthew Shepard was and is a heinous and vicious crime.”
In the wake of Shepard’s death in 1998, President Bill Clinton urged passage of a federal hate crimes bill that would include sexual orientation as a protected class. The bill has yet to pass and revelations that Shepard’s death may not have been a hate crime at all will certainly play into the continuing debate.