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Killer's Offensive Defense--Dispatches from Laramie

Daily Account of the Matthew Shepard Murder Trial

Question Asked: How Do U Know if Someone's Gay?


By Jeffrey Montgomery
Triangle Foundation & the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs

Monday, 25 October 1999

Laramie, Wyoming--9:30am MDT--The final pool of jurors is being selected this morning. This process is expected to be concluded by Noon, when the final panel will be allowed to leave the Courthouse and ready themselves for the trial and sequestration. Opening statements are expected this afternoon.
shepmckinney2.jpg - 10.08 K Aaron McKinney and Matthew Shepard

There is much speculation about whether a plea will still be brokered between the prosecution and defense. Many here believe that once the final jury is seated, if it appears to be one not likely to go for a death sentence, that the prosecutor may wish to get a plea, or pleas, to avoid the lengthy and expensive trial, as happend with the previous case of co-defendant Russell Henderson.

That presumes several other unknowns... such as whether the defense would recommed this to their client. The head of the defense team, Dion Custis, may read the jury differently and feel they will have sympathy for the "dimisnished capacity" defense he seems to have been constructing; that McKinney was so high on drugs and alcohol that he had no idea what he was doing and should be given a manslaughter conviction.

Another unknown is whether the Shepards would accept a plea this time around. Some speculate that they would not want to sit through a trial that will certianly bring out further gruesome details of the murder, incuding autopsy and other photos, as well as testimony as to what took place in the truck and at the Fence site prior to Matthew Shepard's being tied there and left to die. Would the Shepard parents want to endure this trial, if a plea were offered and accepted? No one knows.

If the proceedings continue toward trial, as expected, opening statements should be given by the end of the day.

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

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Thousands Mourn Matthew Shepard at U.S. Capitol

Related Sites:
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GayToday does not endorse related sites.

Media presence here is much wider than that of two weeks ago at the beginning of the jury selction process. There is, however, virtually no public presence, as Laramie seems to be continuing its attitude of ignoring the unwelcome attention that these events have focused on this otherwsie quiet town.

Monday Afternoon Testimony

Testimony began Monday in Aaron McKinney's murder trial, but not until after the most astounding, blatant exhibition of a "gay panic" defense was outlined by the team representing the accused, and admitted killer of Matthew Shepard.

By the start of the afternoon session the jury had been selected with ten men and six women on the final panel. Of that number, three are students at the University of Wyoming.

So by the start of the afternoon session, and a year after the horrific killing of Shepard, the opening statements were finally to be heard.

McKinney was escorted in, wearing a black suit that was in high contrast to his ashen, stark white complexion. Judy Shepard sat stoically in the front row, while across the aisle sat members of McKinney's family.

Prosecutor Carl Rerucha presented a clear a concise overview of the State's case against McKinney. He provided a story of the harrowing last ride of Shepard in the truck driven by Russell Henderson and with fellow passenger McKinney.

Rerucha said that this is not a case about Shepard's life, but about the pain and suffering and death he suffered at the hands of Aaron McKinney.

The prosecutor told of McKinney and Henderson assessing Shepard as a victim at the Fireside Lounge, the bar where they first encountered each other. Once in the truck McKinney told Shepard, "We're not gay and you're getting jacked."

Then the beating commenced; the beating with a 357-magnum handgun. They drove to an area familiar to McKinney, the Fence on the outskirts of Laramie. After several more blows, McKinney and Henderson left Matt Shepard knowing he was dead, or soon would be.

The defense followed with their version of events, and their unequivocal, unscrupulous touting of so-called "homosexual panic" was both riveting and revolting.
shepfence.jpg - 16.93 K A mourner at the infamous fence where Shepard was beaten
Photo: Quest Magazine

Defense team member Jason Tangeman began by announcing disingenuously (and, it turned out, portentously) that Matthew Shepard is innocent. He assured the panel that they would not like McKinney, and that murder is never pretty. Neither, it became apparent, will be this defense.

Many observing this case had speculated that "gay panic" would not even surface here, even while activists were becoming weary with saying it would be inevitable. We had been arguing that in order to make the case for a reduced verdict of manslaughter, it would become essential for the defense to tie the brutal beating to some motive.

Tangeman wasted little time in establishing that motivation. McKinney, he explained, was "furious" with rage because Shepard had "come on" to him, had groped him and even licked McKinney's ear. Shepard was a predator that evening, according to Tangeman's tale. And McKinney was high on methamphetamines and alcohol. The touch set McKinney into a rage and he knew not what he was doing from that moment on.

More than ten blows to the head later, including those that resulted in crushing Shepard's brain stem, McKinney and Henderson fled the scene. But not before they tied their 105-pound victim to the Fence and relieved him of his shoes.

Then, the most staggering news of all. McKinney, as told by Tangeman, had a history of homosexual abuse. And it "haunted" him. When he was a youngster a neighborhood "bully" had forced McKinney to have sex with him, McKinney had also been forced to have sex with another boy, he had yet another sexual encounter with a male cousin. There were rumors that Aaron might be a fag.

Finally, just two years ago, McKinney, along with his girlfriend, was vacationing in Florida and happened into a "gay" church.

These "sexually confusing events in his past," in Tangeman's words, are what set him on his murderous attack of Matthew Shepard. This last element was dazzling, as though the attorney had pulled a rabbit out of a hat, right before our very eyes!

According to Tangeman, homosexual humiliation fueled by drugs and alcohol brought up the past and well the picture should be clear.

By mid-afternoon, the Tangeman's deed was done and the gay panic defense had been thrown down as a gauntlet. Now for the defense's next trick

Tuesday, October 26-- Testimony: "Fluctuate Your Voice"

Things can always get worse, even when you don't think things could get worse.

I didn't think this defense team could get any worse than they were yesterday. That was when they rolled out the Y2K compatible, Millennium Edition of the "Homo Panic Defense." This new version, the one specially minted for the Aaron McKinney trial in Laramie, is designed to be as offensive and vulgar as past models, but has been outfitted with a late 90s look of unabashed loathing and contempt. It's built to last.

Anyway, Tuesday was a day that featured a full morning of testimony dedicated to the medical examiner's report and findings of how Matthew Shepard actually died (multiple blunt force trauma, causing skull fracture, crushing the brain stem), complete with poster-sized blow-ups of autopsy photos.

The afternoon provided an absorbing account of an excellent piece of police work by Laramie cops, involving McKinney's second vicious attack on innocent people on the same evening that he beat the hell out of Shepard. That would be the attack on two Latino men.

In that second incident, McKinney and his pal Russell Henderson, fresh from their visit to the Fence with Shepard, used the same blunt object (357-Magnum revolver) that did the job on Shepard to bust open the skull of young Mr. Morales. McKinney gives a new meaning to the concept of "handgun." With Aaron, why waste money on bullets?

But for me, the most fascinating revelation came through defense team questioning of two employees of the Fireside Bar & Lounge. The Fireside is the venue where McKinney and Henderson ran into Matthew and from which the three left together.

The Fireside witnesses were Matt Galloway, who self-identified as a "student/bartender" (pronounce the word "slash" in that phrase), and Douglas Ferguson. Ferguson was a bouncer in October of '98. He's now a bartender.

Defense team co-captain, Jason Tangeman was back for day two, following his masterful work of introducing the "Homo Panic" strategy the previous day. He wasted no time to dispel any notion that denigrating homos in general and Mr. Shepard specifically was a one-day exercise. He continued to defame and disparage Shepard by insinuating that he was a lush. But he really made advances when he questioned the two lounge employees.

To Mr. Galloway: "Was Mr. McKinney acting gay?"

To Mr. Ferguson: "Were [Henderson & McKinney] acting gay?"

Each of the young men, Galloway and Ferguson, didn't think so.

But I was wondering (and I wasn't the only one who was) what that meant?

What would either of these two guys do, how would they pull off, "acting gay?"

Well, no one would wonder long. Tangeman provided the clue; the give-away that someone is "acting gay." He followed his question to Ferguson with this helpful inquiry: "Did they fluctuate their voices?"

Fluctuating voices. That's how you know! Now I know why all those gay guys in all those bars are always fluctuating their voices. That's always annoyed me all those fluctuating voices, but now I know ---the world knows--- that those guys are simply acting gay!

Tangeman has evidently studied gay culture.

Although Shepard had been in the Fireside several times and was a respectful and respected patron, Galloway told reporters outside the Courthouse following his testimony that he had never been sure whether Matthew was gay or not.

Shepard obviously never fluctuated his voice.

So it's going to get progressively worse.
Jeffrey Montgomery has been able to observe and comment on this case in Laramie through the generous support of the 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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