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Aaron McKinney's Struggle to Avoid the Death Penalty

Dispatch from Laramie Describes a Remote Murder Site

Day One: Rev. Phelps, Jury Selection, Memorial Spirits


By Jeffrey Montgomery

Laramie, Wyoming—Tuesday Morning—12 October, 1999

Day One of jury selection in the murder trial of Aaron McKinney was a quite deal, right from the start. Early in the morning [Baptist Rev.] Freddie Phelps [of Topeka] was outside the courthouse in Laramie with four or five of his brood. There were more placards, offensive and vulgar, than there were cohorts, also vulgar and offensive. Freddie seemed subdued inside his little pen.

Question: has there ever been a more vicious exhibit in any petting zoo?
shepmckinney.jpg - 9.93 K Matthew Shepard (right), defendant Aaron McKinney (bottom) and the Rev. Fred "the freak" Phelps

Seating a jury for this case will be a long process. The pool of about 250 potential jurors will be taken in groups of about 64 at a time. The first of these sets was the focus of yesterday's inside activity. Seventeen were dismissed; the rest were to be individually interviewed throughout today.

Perhaps the most noteworthy news came by way of statements and questions made by McKinney's public defender attorney, Dion Custis. He said that his client was, indeed, at the scene of the crime --- he even participated in the brutal beating --- and that he is guilty. Guilty of what? Custis will be working for a jury to answer that question with a manslaughter verdict.

It's clear to me that Custis is trying to save McKinney from death, and not much else.

Custis is going to rely on an argument that seems to suggest that McKinney was acting under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamines. That's what made him do it.

Anti-gay motivation has been the silent topic here. Prosecutor Rerucha mentioned directly only once. By Custis, not at all. Oblique references to the attention this case has received, and the fact that many have an "agenda" set around this trial were frequent. Jurors were asked if any of them were involved in efforts to pass hate crime legislation, for example. Apparently none was.

Related Stories from the GayToday Archive:
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Matthew's Killers: What Does it Take to Pass as a Man?

Matthew Shepard's Murder: Gay Hate Crime of the Century

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When I've been asked by media representatives about why this is an anti-gay (as opposed to a "robbery gone bad") my answer is that early evidence had the suspects saying so, in spite of one recent quote from McKinney to the contrary.

More important, the sheer savagery of the beating and the bizarre act of tying Shepard to the fence demonstrate typical features of hate violence, especially directed at gays.

Much speculation here about whether a Laramie jury will give out a death sentence in any case, and how much is going on behind the scenes to work out a possible plea. Recall that Russell Henderson's trial was proceeding right along this same [path and that his plea agreement didn't happen until after a jury was empanelled and opening arguments were about to begin.

shepardselton.jpg - 5.89 K The Shepards with Elton John at a benefit concert
Photo Courtesy of Quest magazine and by M. Nanette Martin
Weird moment, a member of the jury pool, Juror 76, attempted to pass a note to Mrs. Shepard as the lunch break was announced. It was apparently a sympathy note. Juror 76 was dismissed immediately after lunch for "improper contact" and informed that he was a prime candidate for a contempt charge.

Dennis and Judy Shepard were in court, and plan to be for the duration. McKinney's father was also there.

Tuesday afternoon:

Have just returned from a stunning event. Took part in the very last leg of the Hike for Hope. Jerry Switzer and Jeremy Atencio trekked over 70 miles from Ft. Collins, Colorado, to Laramie. Here's the lead from a story in today's Denver Post:

"[Switzer & Atencio] trekked the last 20 miles to Laramie along US 287 on Monday. Surrounded by windswept prairie and buffeted by gusts from passing tractor-trailer rigs, they thought about their friend Matthew Shepard, who died one year ago today."

Switzer and Atencio organized the hike to raise awareness and to encourage people to think and talk about gay rights and the broader issue of tolerance for all.

To that end, they hooked up with the BEAR Project, which accounted for the fact that hundreds of teddy bears accompanied them on the walk. Each bear has been created by someone to memorialize a victim of hate violence, and bears have arrived from around the world.

This was a beautiful memorial; one that should be outstanding among all of those remembrance events that are taking place throughout the country over these last and next few days.

Jerry and Jeremy are heroes who have demonstrated the real human level of the effect of loss through violence, while making a meaningful and deeply personal memorial to their good friend.

It was an honor and privilege to be with them as their hike ended, and to accompany them on their pilgrimage to the now infamous fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die by his assailants.

Erin Uritus, of Washington, D.C., is the woman who has made the BEAR Project possible. She sees it as a way to help teach tolerance, especially to younger people. Kids respond to the bears and then take the time to learn the stories of the people that each bear represents. She, too, is one who is making a difference while so many others fret about what to do with the violence we all confront. She's doing something and she's inspiring.

About that Fence. I was not fully prepared for what it would be like to be standing in front of what has become one of the most familiar symbols of violence in our culture today. I was awestruck.

Located in a desolate expanse in the middle of an embryonic housing development, the Fence sits silently among dried weeds and rocks. It's a harsh setting.

During the drive out to the site, I became increasingly angry with those who still insist that Shepard's death may have been the result of a botched hold-up or mugging. One would have to actually drive to the site, many miles out of town, through twisting roads, unmarked paths, and desperate terrain to understand how sickening and horrifying must have been the growing realization of what was going to occur; to appreciate what that ride must have been for Matthew on the fateful night. shepfence.jpg - 16.93 K Romaine Patterson mourns where her best friend Mattthew Shepard was tied and beaten
Photo Courtesy of Quest magazine and by M. Nanette Martin

In the dark, this place would be almost impossible to find. His killers must have known exactly where they were going.

If the encounter with Shepard was simply a shake down, why not do him in an alley in town and leave him after relieving him of his wallet. I had been convinced of the anti-gay motivation based on the severity of the beating, as mentioned above. Now, after the journey to the Fence, I am positive beyond any question that McKinney and Henderson had more than mischief in their plan on that night last year. They were treating a fag they way they knew they should.

It's been a day of hope and hellish understanding.
Jeffrey Montgomery has been able to observe and comment on this case in Laramie through the generous support of Michigan's Triangle Foundation and its supporters; The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs; Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.
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