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  'Gay Panic' Defense Stirs Wyo. Trial

Dion Custis, left, and Jason Tangeman, right, defense attorneys for Aaron McKinney
Dion Custis, left, and Jason Tangeman, attorneys for Aaron McKinney, lead members of their team to the courthouse in Laramie, Wyo. (AP)  

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  • Post Coverage of the Matthew Shepard Case
  • By Tom Kenworthy
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, October 26, 1999; Page A2

    LARAMIE, Wyo. Oct 25—Aaron McKinney, charged in the beating death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard last year, was scarred by a homosexual predator as a child and responded with "five minutes of rage and chaos" when Shepard made sexual advances toward him, McKinney's lawyer said today in opening statements in the capital murder case.

    McKinney, 22, did not intend to kill Shepard when he repeatedly beat him on the head with a .357 Magnum pistol and should be convicted only of manslaughter, not first-degree murder, attorney Jason Tangeman told the jury this afternoon at the Albany County Courthouse here.

    Prosecutors say Shepard was lured from a popular campus bar by McKinney and his friend Russell Henderson, who robbed him, drove him to a remote spot outside town, savagely beat him after tying him to a fence and left him to die. Shepard died several days later, and his murder immediately became a rallying point for gay advocacy groups determined to enact more stringent hate crime laws.

    Henderson, 22, pleaded guilty in April to murder and kidnapping charges and was sentenced to two life sentences in the Wyoming penitentiary. He is expected to be called as a witness in the McKinney trial. Lawyers for McKinney previously said they would not deny their client's involvement in the murder and suggested they would link it to his use of drugs and alcohol.

    Though Tangeman today said that was a factor in McKinney's behavior Oct. 6, particularly his use of methamphetamine, he made it clear that the heart of the effort to save McKinney's life would be what has become known as a "gay panic" defense. McKinney is also charged with kidnapping and aggravated robbery.

    McKinney, said Tangeman, "had some sexually traumatic and confusing events in his life," including being preyed on by a neighborhood bully, who forced the then-7-year-old to perform oral sex on him and commit sexual acts with other children. When Shepard approached McKinney and Henderson in the Fireside Inn, said Tangeman, "he was looking for a sexual encounter," and later in McKinney's father's pickup truck Shepard "reached over and grabbed [McKinney's] genitals and licked his ear."

    Haunted by his past and humiliated in front of his friend Henderson, McKinney responded with an almost unconscious fury, said Tangeman, telling police: "I don't know what happened. I blacked out. I felt possessed. It was like I left my body." As evidence of his intent to hurt but not kill Shepard, Tangeman said McKinney in statements to police admitting his involvement said, "I didn't intend to kill him. . . . I just hit him too hard."

    Gay rights activists responded with anger and dismay to the defense. "I expected something like that, but I never expected it to be so blatant," said Jeffrey Montgomery, observing the trial for the Triangle Foundation and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. "It's a bankrupt defense."

    In outlining his case against McKinney, Albany County prosecutor Cal Rerucha appeared to anticipate the defense argument, telling the 16 jurors and alternates selected earlier today: "This case will not be about the life of Matthew Shepard, it will simply be about the pain, suffering and death of Matthew Shepard at the hands of Mr. McKinney."

    McKinney decided to kill Shepard--and thus was guilty of premeditated murder--when he asked the university student if he could read his truck's license plate as he lay strapped to the rough wooden fence, said Rerucha. "For whatever reason, Matthew Shepard said yes and read it to Mr. McKinney," Rerucha told the jury. "With that information, Mr. McKinney once again raises his hand . . . and strikes him as hard as he can in the head once, strikes him as hard as he can in the head twice, strikes him three times as hard as he can in the head."

    McKinney, a roofer at the time of his arrest last year, has been described by friends and family members as an aimless and occasionally troublesome youth who was quick to anger.

    Alternately living with his divorced parents, he struggled in school, and at 14 was sent to a youth detention center for three months for stealing a cash register from a sports card store. He never completed high school and fathered a son with his girlfriend Kristen Price--who was charged as an accessory for helping hide the suspects' bloody clothing and faces a trial in January. Henderson's girlfriend Chastity Pasley, also charged as an accessory, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months to two years in prison.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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