ABC Debunked Matthew Shepard Murder as No Hate Crime, MSNBC Savages Republican for Repeating

On Wednesday’s Countdown show, which aired at 9:00 p.m. after President Obama's news conference, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann viciously slammed Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx for claiming that murder victim Matthew Shepard – whom the current hate crimes bill is named after – was targeted out of a desire to commit robbery rather than because of anti-gay sentiment by his attacker, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the grisly murder was a hate crime. The MSNBC host was so outraged at the North Carolina congresswoman that he named her as the night’s "Worst Person in the World" and showed particular venom toward her, even suggesting she should resign. Olbermann: "She is at best callous, insensitive, criminally misinformed. At worst she is a bald-faced liar. And if there is a spark of a human being in there somewhere, she should either immediately retract and apologize for her stupid and hurtful words or she should resign her seat in the House."

On the 11:00 p.m. special edition of Hardball, Chris Matthews and guests Joan Walsh of Salon and MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard also lambasted Foxx for her claim, with Walsh contending that she was either "lying" or "ignorant," and Matthews calling Foxx’s words "rough stuff." Walsh: "She's a hoax, Chris. She disgraced herself today. That was inaccurate. And what I really don't know is whether she’s lying – she knows the facts and she’s lying – or whether she’s so ignorant and arrogant that she didn’t need to delve into the facts."

But, on the November 26, 2004, 20/20, ABC host Elizabeth Vargas ran a report in which a number of figures tied to the case, including the prosecutor, were interviewed, and made a credible case that Shepard was targeted by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson not because of anti-gay sentiment, but because McKinney was high on methamphetamines, giving him unusual violent tendencies as well as a desire for cash to buy more drugs. Vargas not only found that a meth high can lead to the kind of extreme violence perpetrated against Shepard, but that McKinney had gone on to similarly attack another man, causing a skull fracture, very soon after his attack on Shepard. Additionally, McKinney’s girlfriend and another friend of McKinney’s even claimed that McKinney himself has bisexual tendencies, although McKinney himself denied it.

Vargas appeared on the November 19, 2004, The O’Reilly Factor on FNC and summarized her findings:

The prosecutor who prosecuted these crimes says that he never believed it was a hate crime. He believes it was a drug crime. Aaron McKinney, according to Aaron McKinney himself and to several other witnesses, was coming down from a five-day methamphetamine binge. He freely admits he not only used methamphetamine but dealt them, sold them. Five days up with no sleep, strung out on drugs, desperate to buy more, desperate to rob somebody to get money to buy more drugs. This was the motive, according to Aaron McKinney and the other witnesses.

Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Friday, November 19, 2004 The O’Reilly Factor on FNC, followed by the Wednesday, April 29, Countdown show on MSNBC and the same days’s Hardball on MSNBC:

#From the November 19, 2004, The O’Reilly Factor:

ELIZABETH VARGAS: We talked to a lot of witnesses in the case, looked at statements that had been previously sealed by the court following the convictions. And what we found out was that sort of the original version of events that everybody believed may not be true. The version of events was Matthew Shepard didn't know, had never met these two men, that they targeted him, attacked him, and beat him so severely because he was gay. We have talked to several witnesses who say actually the men may have in fact known each other.

...

BILL O'REILLY: I just want to fill people's memories in because it was -- apparently, they were at a bar, these two guys felt he was coming on to them in some way, they lured him outside and they killed him. That was basically the nut. You're saying there was more to the murder?

VARGAS: Even the prosecutor says there was more to the murder. The prosecutor who prosecuted these crimes says that he never believed it was a hate crime. He believes it was a drug crime. Aaron McKinney, according to Aaron McKinney himself and to several other witnesses, was coming down from a five-day methamphetamine binge. He freely admits he not only used methamphetamine but dealt them, sold them. Five days up with no sleep, strung out on drugs, desperate to buy more, desperate to rob somebody to get money to buy more drugs. This was the motive, according to Aaron McKinney and the other witnesses.

...

VARGAS: When we talked to an expert about this, it was something called methamphetamine rage. I mean, it's something that experts say is common for somebody coming – he beat another boy that night, another young man, only this young man. ... right after he left Matthew Shepard tied to the fence, he and his friend drove down into town, and, 20 minutes later, he was attacking somebody else in the exact same fashion. This young man happened to be armed with a baseball bat and had a friend there to help him out. Matthew Shepard was unarmed and by himself and was much more a victim of his-

...

O'REILLY: So you may get backlash now from the gay groups who say, well, why even bother with this thing? What are you going to, what's the answer to that?

VARGAS: The answer to that is we're trying, we have an obligation to uncover the truth of what really happened. 20/20 was one of the first newsmagazine's to go out with this story that this was a bias crime, this was a hate crime way back in 1998 when this happened. ... The girlfriend of Aaron McKinney went on our program in silhouette ... She lied. She comes to us now, not in silhouette, in full face to admit that she lied. This was something they cooked up hoping to get him a lesser sentence to explain why he might have freaked out and done what he did.

O'REILLY: So they were going homophobia, whatever? They tried to do it.

VARGAS: They claimed that this was something from the beginning they cooked up as a way to get a lesser sentence. But I must say it's important to know we knew this would be controversial. We know there will be some people who are not happy about this version of events.

...

O'REILLY: And you're a hundred percent sure that this is correct? Now you're not going to come back a year from now and say, well, we're going back to the gay thing?

VARGAS: I'm a hundred percent sure our hour is accurate. We talked to a lot of people, have a very, very-

O'REILLY: If you have a girl recanting, that's big.

VARGAS: We do. And the prosecutor himself saying he never believed it was a hate crime.

#From the April 29, 2009, Countdown:

KEITH OLBERMANN: But our winner, and this is the most despicable thing said on the floor of the House in decades. The speaker is Congresswoman Virginia Foxx from the fifth district of North Carolina, Winston-Salem, arguing against passing the Matthew Shepard hates crimes bill.

REP. VIRGINIA FOXX (R-NC): The hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay. The bill was named for him. The hate crimes bill was named for him. But it’s really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.

OLBERMANN: Congresswoman Foxx, you are the only hoax here. One of Matthew Shepard’s killers admitted under oath that he knew that he was gay, that they lured him from a bar by pretending to be gay themselves. Then they robbed him, pistol whipped him, fractured his skull, tortured him with a sharp implement, and they tied him to a fence post in rural Wyoming. He was not found for 18 hours. There is no excuse for Congresswoman Foxx’s remarks. She is at best callous, insensitive, criminally misinformed. At worst she is a bald-faced liar. And if there is a spark of a human being in there somewhere, she should either immediately retract and apologize for her stupid and hurtful words or she should resign her seat in the House. She is not worthy to represent this country, nor any of its parties, nor any of its peoples. She is our shame. And adding to our shame she said all that as Matthew Shephard's mother sat in the House gallery. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, Fifth District of North Carolina, today’s "Worst Person in the World."

#From the 11:00 p.m. edition of the April 29, 2009, Hardball:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I want you ladies to look at this. Today the House passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. But U.S. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina spoke out loudly against it. Here she is making her case. It’s rough stuff.

REP. VIRGINIA FOXX (R-NC): There was a bill, the hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay. The bill was named for him. The hate crimes bill was named for him. But it’s really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.

MATTHEWS: Well, let's go to Joan Walsh on that. Joan, what do you make of that term, a "hoax," putting down the Matthew Shepard horror story as nothing more than the usual robbery, as bad as the usual robbery is?

JOAN WALSH, SALON: Right. She's a hoax, Chris. She disgraced herself today. That was inaccurate. And what I really don't know is whether she’s lying – she knows the facts and she’s lying – or whether she’s so ignorant and arrogant that she didn’t need to delve into the facts. And the thing that really pains me about this is that she said all this with Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mother, sitting right there. I’ve met Judy Shepard. She’s a woman of enormous dignity and courage, crusading for legislation and for changes of attitude that would make crimes like this impossible. To lose a son under those circumstances, and then to have to listen to this ignorant woman diminish what happened, it was just a disgrace.

MATTHEWS: Well, Michelle Bernard, we know what the story is, this young guy was in a bar. He was picked up by two fellows, they came in and portrayed themselves as gay, thinking that he was gay, and luring him out into the countryside where they basically just crucified the kid. They beat him up, they pistol-whipped him, they tied him to a fence so he would die of exposure. It wasn’t the crime you commit just to cover up the evidence. It looks like a hate crime, and, by the way, I was just at the University of Wyoming at Laramie for a whole day last week, and they are very, very sensitive about the whole issue and very concerned about gay rights from what I could tell out there.

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And, you know, when people look at this comment that was made today by this member of Congress, a lot of people will say this is another reason that we believe that the Republican party is completely out of touch. I suspect that there were a lot of Republicans who watched it and went, "She said we know that this was a hoax," a lot of people are saying I don’t want to be in that category of "We know." It’s just, I don’t understand how she could say it. It was very, very widely publicized. She clearly had to have read about it or should have done preparation before she went out and spoke about this today. What was done to this child was absolutely horrific. And she didn’t do the Republican party any favors whatsoever today. They are having enough problems as it is, reaching out to so many different people whether it is African-Americans, you know, homosexuals, women, the Republican party is having a lot of problems. And what we saw today with her unfortunately might just be the tip of the iceberg.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, Joan, murder one seems to be the crime here anyway, so I wouldn't have any problem with throwing the book at these guys for all kinds of usual criminal reasons. Why do you think Republicans resist the notion of hate crimes when we all know, having grown up in this country, there are cases of people beating people up because of their ethnicity or because of their orientation. All kinds of this stuff has gone on in our history.

WALSH: I think, Chris, because they really are trying to get across the notion that gay people are asking for some kind of special rights. So they always find a way to oppose these sorts of civil rights pieces of legislation to make that point. That, well, they are protected by these other laws, and, certainly, murder, you know we can prosecute murder and we do. But this gives us a special importance and a special deterrent to these kinds of crimes. And they want to say nobody’s really prejudiced against gay people, we wish they’d be private about whatever it is they're doing.

MATTHEWS: Well, let's make a good positive American bet that Virginia Foxx will recant her words in the days ahead.

WALSH: I hope so.

MATTHEWS: I think she will, because take a trip. Congresswoman, go out to Laramie and talk to the people out there. They have a different memory of what happened out there.