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Defense Says Homosexual Advance Triggered Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The attorney for accused murderer Aaron McKinney told a jury here Monday that a homosexual advance by Matthew Shepard brought back traumatic childhood memories and triggered “five minutes of emotional rage and chaos” that led to the 21-year-old college student’s death.

In his chilling opening argument on Monday, Jason Tangeman not only conceded that McKinney savagely beat Shepard and left him for dead a year ago, he also provided the motive. As some legal experts had predicted, Tangeman chose to mount a variant of the controversial “homosexual panic” defense.

In a brief but candid statement to the jury, Tangeman portrayed McKinney as a victim of alcohol and drug abuse. Then, in a startling revelation, Tangeman said McKinney had been forced at the age of 7 by a neighborhood bully into sex acts with other children and had been humiliated when he was accused of being gay.

Tangeman also said that McKinney’s consensual sex with a male cousin when he was 15 had left the former roofer confused and troubled.

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Prosecutor Cal Rerucha presented a different picture to the jury panel of 10 men and six women, including four alternates. He said that Shepard’s death was not about sexual orientation but robbery and that Shepard, who was gay, had been singled out as an ‘easy mark’ for assault.

Rerucha repeated the grisly details of Shepard’s murder, which authorities say was carried out by McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson. Henderson pleaded guilty in the case earlier this year and is serving two life sentences.

McKinney is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery. If convicted he could face the death penalty.

The panic defense is a relatively new legal tactic positing that a homosexual advance to a heterosexual man may warrant a violent reaction, even murder. Its use here offended some gay-rights activists, who not only objected to blaming Shepard for his own murder, but also said the tactic obscured the status of the incident as a hate crime.

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“This is not unexpected,” said David M. Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for gays and lesbians. “It is reprehensible and devalues the life of a gay person. It preys on the prejudices of a jury by lessening the value of a gay person’s life because they allegedly made an advance. It doesn’t justify cold-blooded murder.”

Jeffrey Montgomery, executive director of the Triangle Foundation, a gay-rights lobby, attended the trial’s first day and appeared angry and shaken.

“I anticipated this but I didn’t think it would be so blatant,” he said. “This was gay bashing, a scoundrel’s defense.”

The death of Shepard focused public attention on violence against homosexuals and stimulated at-times feverish debate about hate crimes legislation.

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An expected clash of protesters never materialized in this college town, in contrast to the tumult that accompanied other proceedings in the case. Despite two metal detectors, extra sheriff’s deputies and fencing around the courthouse, little seemed to disturb a bright, crisp fall day.

Inside the courtroom, however, jurors were told to expect to view graphic photographs and hear gruesome testimony. The jurors, among them three students at the University of Wyoming, where Shepard was a freshman, are being sequestered during the trial, which is expected to last four weeks.

McKinney entered the courtroom looking pale and wearing a too-large black suit. His father and members of his family sat in the front row, across from Judy Shepard, the victim’s mother.

The public defender outlined McKinney’s bleak life as a small-time drug pusher and high school dropout. Tangeman took jurors though the movements of McKinney and Henderson on the night of Oct. 6, 1998, and said the best friends had been drinking heavily and had been using methamphetamines. They ended up at the Fireside Bar, where Shepard was sitting at the bar.

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Tangeman said Shepard struck up a conversation and eventually asked the men for a ride home. While riding in a truck with the pair, Tangeman said, Shepard made a sexual advance to McKinney and that caused McKinney’s “past to bubble up in him.”

The defense attorney quoted from a statement McKinney made to authorities, saying: “I don’t know what happened. I blacked out. It was like I was possessed or something. It was like I left my body. I was furious.”

The prosecutor scoffed at any hint of an “abuse excuse” and told the jury the case was “simply about the pain, suffering and death of Matthew Shkepard at the hands of the defendant, Aaron James McKinney.”

Henderson is expected to testify at the trial. During his sentencing in April, Henderson said he played a role in the murder but added that McKinney delivered the fatal beating. However, Tangeman indicated Monday that Henderson might recant his earlier statements.

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