Friday’s “20/20” is devoted to challenging the widely accepted version of the events and motives in the brutal 1998 slaying of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard – including those once presented by “20/20.”

This one-hour special (at 10 p.m. EST on ABC), reported by co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas in her first major scoop since inheriting Barbara Walters’ chair, strongly suggests that Shepard’s murder was not an anti-gay hate crime, as was reported at the time, but a robbery of opportunity that – fueled by a methamphetamine high – escalated into horrific violence.

Vargas and producers Steve Jimenez, Glenn Silber and Richard Gerdau get the first interviews with convicted murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who never testified in court and whose independently told jailhouse accounts support one another. And they talk to more than a dozen other people – some reliable, some seedy – almost all of whom, six years after the crime, seem to agree that Shepard’s killing was not, as attorneys at the time suggested, triggered by the young man coming on to a homophobic and hostile McKinney.

One of those who supported and helped popularize that theory at the time was Kristen Price, McKinney’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. She appeared on “20/20” then, in shadow and unidentified, to supply McKinney’s “version” of what had happened. On this “20/20,” she appears in full light and admits she lied in hopes of inflaming the jury and freeing her boyfriend.

Certainly, the hatred of gays by some people in Wyoming – a state without a single gay bar according to one of the interviewees – was not imagined. As Shepard’s father delivers his son’s eulogy at an outdoor service, protesters hold signs declaring “God hates fags” and “Fags doom nations.”

“20/20” provides some new words and perspectives. Most eye-opening, perhaps, is that Henderson, serving the same sentence as McKinney, says he tied Shepard to the fence where he was beaten to the edge of death, but never once struck him – a claim McKinney backs up. And both of them, and others who knew them, acknowledge McKinney’s drug abuse and strung-out behavior.

“I’ve attacked my best friends, coming off of meth benders,” McKinney confesses to Vargas. When Shepard accepted a ride in their truck that night, McKinney struck him repeatedly, robbed him of $30, then drove to the remote location to hit him some more – because, he says now, he was on a drug high.

“Did you kill Matthew Shepard because he was gay?” Vargas asks him.

“No, I did not,” he replies. “All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.”

This solid “20/20” report answers some questions, and poses others – such as the role of the media, ABC included, in jumping to conclusions and further inflaming an already incendiary story. By correcting its own account, “20/20” adds to its journalistic credibility.

The polarization sparked outrage, heated debate and at least one nationally lauded theatrical work: “The Laramie Project,” in which actors portrayed citizens of the city in which Shepard lived and died.


10 p.m. EST, Friday


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