Plea bargain provision to never do interviews broken
Friday night, November 26, 2004, the ABC Television newsmagazine, 20/20, broadcast a one-hour attack on the character, the life and the judgment of hate crime victim, Matthew Shepard. The show was a journalistic disaster which could ultimately land the producers in front of a judge for conspiracy and contempt of court.
The show was built around first time interviews with the admitted killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The show is a case study in irresponsible journalism. It is hard to recall any previous news magazine program with such a high level of blatant distortions, obvious conflicts of fact and so many unsubstantiated conclusions.
Why ABC didn’t simply pull the show is a question worthy of serious debate in the days to come.
At one point, Henderson twice, in response to repeated questions, says he never touched Shepard and that he never hit him. That was all done by the other guy, he said. All he did, he admits, was tie Matthew Shepard to a fence. No emphasis is given to the fact that this man, Russell Henderson, tied a brutally beaten and bleeding Matthew Shepard to a fence and that he drove away leaving him so disfigured and pummeled that he lived for less than a week.
Like so many, these statements reveal how Henderson has reduced the humanity of his victim to a level where, in his mind, Matthew Shepard isn’t even a real person.
The newsmagazine’s most serious breech of journalistic integrity comes with allegations regarding Shepard’s HIV status. Their source is an oversexed limousine driver. For ABC News to allow such statements to air, with absolutely no substantiation, is a moral outrage.
Matthew Shepard wasn’t a criminal. Matthew Shepard was the victim of a hate crime and he was beaten to the point that he died. In life or death, Matthew Shepard has done nothing to deny him the right to be respected.
Should they choose, the Shepard family has some very formidable tools for dishing out some real serious retaliation. One is called criminal conspiracy. Another is contempt of court.
Five years ago as the murder trial began, prosecutors indicated they would seek the death penalty for Aaron McKinney. In exchange for not seeking the death penalty, McKinney was sentenced to life imprisonment in a plea bargain which contained several provisions. One is a pledge Aaron McKinney would never discuss the case, ever, with the media.
Friday night, when ABC aired the McKinney interview, they breached the conditions of the plea bargain. The agreement which caused prosecutors to not seek the death penalty is now broken.
The killers might believe they had nothing to lose by doing
interviews. ABC News, on the other hand, could lose a lot. Should it be alleged that ABC News conspired with McKinney to secure, promote and air these interviews, the stakes will change dramatically.
To encourage violation of the terms of a plea bargain in a murder case, one as highly publicized as this one, could prove highly problematic for the producers of 20/20, the ABC Television Network and its parent corporation, the Walt Disney Company. Also vulnerable would be KKTU in Cheyenne and KTWO, in Casper, Wyoming. Both are ABC network affiliates in Wyoming and are owned by the Equity Broadcasting Corporation.
Six years ago, on Sunday night, October 11, 1998, I helped organize an effort to send messages of hope from San Francisco to Ft. Collins, Colorado, where Matthew Shepard was hospitalized. Working with the hospital staff, messages from over 100 San Franciscans were faxed and then delivered, just before midnight, to Judy Shepard in her son’s hospital room.
To meet an ever increasing level of requests, the hospital had set up a special e-mail address where messages could be sent Matthew Shepard. That same evening, KGO-TV listed the address as part of coverage on their 11 pm newscast. Listing the address set off a deluge of e-mail from Northern California which by morning would number several hundred. As the newscast was airing in San Francisco, Matthew Shepard, the young 21 year old college student died.
One year later, I was honored when Judy Shepard accepted my
invitation, on behalf of the East Bay Pride organization, to speak at the opening event of their 1999 activities.
These activities were reasons I was invited to view and react to the show’s network feed last Friday night. It is important to not forget what happened, not only in Laramie, but also in Northern California six years ago. People reacted because people cared.
Matthew Shepard serves as an important reminder that crimes of hate continue to take place with alarming regularity.
In the wake of this truly horrible television program, it is also
important to remember Matthew Shepard was part of a loving and caring family. His parents are Dennis and Judy Shepard. These parents are a cut above. Their determination and their courage is an inspiration. Today, I am angry because what ABC and 20/20 did was simply wrong.
Every person responsible, both individually and collectively, for the production and airing of last Friday’s 20/20 show owes Dennis and Judy Shepard an apology.
It was a disgrace and it should never been allowed to air.
Further information and news articles appear at the following:
THE ADVOCATE – DAILY HEADLINES
MATTHEW SHEPARD FOUNDATION
GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation):
ABC’s HINDSIGHT ON MATTHEW SHEPARD’S MURDER FAR LESS THAN ’20/20′
TRASHING MATTHEW SHEPARD, BY DUNCAN OSBORNE, GAY CITY NEWS
’20/20′ INVESTIGATION CHALLENGES SHEPARD MURDER’S HATE-CRIME LABEL
VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN, NEW YORK TIMES, AS APPEARED IN SF CHRONICLE