VOLUME 3, ISSUE 351 | Dec. 16 - 22, 2004


MEDIA


‘20/20’ Coordination Faulted

Matt Shepard’s family disturbed by journalist’s ties to murderer’s lawyer

By DUNCAN OSBORNE

Roughly four years before he sold a piece on the Matthew Shepard killing to ABC’s “20/20,” the freelance producer who brought the story to the news outlet asked the Shepard family for help in producing a film on the young murder victim and was rebuffed.

And Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, is charging that the producer’s relationship with the attorney for Russell Henderson, one of Shepard’s killers, significantly influenced the content of the “20/20” story.

In January of 2000, Stephen Jimenez sent a letter to Judy and Dennis Shepard, the parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay man who was murdered by Henderson and Aaron McKinney in Wyoming in 1998.

The freelance television producer was working with a Los Angeles film company and hoped to produce a piece for Showtime that would tell Matt’s story.

“When I say I have been ‘haunted’ by Matt’s story, I mean that I feel a strong, enduring urge to help awaken the mass audience to the deeper meanings of his tragedy,” Jimenez wrote. “After [Aaron McKinney’s] trial, there were several things each of you said that convinced me that the most powerful way to tell Matt’s story is to tell it from your point of view as his family. Matt is a hero first and foremost to the mother, father and brother who loved and lost him, and to the rest of the world after that.”

Jimenez wrote that, like Matt, he was gay and that, like Matt, he had once hoped to pursue a career as a diplomat.

“He has pursued me regularly since,” Judy Shepard told Gay City News. “We don’t ever respond to those kinds of correspondences.”

Jimenez eventually sold a story about the murder to “20/20.” The piece, which asserted that crystal meth, not anti-gay bias, drove the killing, was broadcast on November 26 and included interviews with McKinney and Henderson. It has been roundly attacked as shoddy journalism in the gay community, by the Shepard family and by one of the lead police investigators on the killing.

Jimenez wrote the Shepards again in March of 2004, months before the reporting on the “20/20” story began. According to Jimenez, Matt was no longer a hero though he did have “noble, admirable ideals—including truth and reconciliation—and I will do all I can to see that those remain part of his legacy,” Jimenez wrote.

The story of the killing had changed. It was a murder that was fueled by McKinney’s meth addiction and Henderson had gone from being a co-conspirator to McKinney’s second victim.

“I’ve had access to reliable information that McKinney did, indeed, strike him with the gun that night because he tried to stop McKinney from beating Matt,” Jimenez wrote.

The police believed that Henderson “held Matt down, but I have new information that discredits that understanding,” Jimenez wrote.

There were three witnesses to the murder, one of whom, the vicitm, is dead. The other two—McKinney and Henderson—are serving double life sentences for the homicide.

Henderson was remorseful and asked Jimenez during an interview if he thought it wise to write to the Shepard family to apologize. In his letter to the Shepards, Jimenez wrote, “I told him I wasn’t sure, that he’d have to give it a lot of thought because of the suffering he caused.”

Less than three weeks later, the Shepards received a “letter of personal apology” from Henderson. It was forwarded to them by Tim Newcomb, the attorney who is handling Henderson’s appeal.

“Neither the Shepards nor I have any specific information that Jimenez is anything but a professional here,” said Sean Maloney, a senior attorney at Willkie, Farr and Gallagher who represents the Matthew Shepard Foundation, created by Judy and Dennis Shepard in the memory of their dead son. “They are suspicious about the timing of his communications with the family and Henderson’s communications with the family.”

The Shepard family was concerned that Newcomb and Jimenez are “coordinating this stuff or they are working together,” Maloney said.

For Judy Shepard, the “20/20” piece looked like the story that Newcomb was telling in Henderson’s petition for sentence relief.

“Jimenez got access to McKinney because of his relationship to Henderson’s attorney,” she said. “Everything would have been spoon-fed to both Jimenez and [Glenn] Silber [a producer] at ABC. I would guess that is how they got access to both McKinney and Henderson.”

Newcomb said of Jimenez, “He’s a friend” and that the relationship was roughly two years old. Newcomb told Gay City News, “I am not an anti-gay person,” though he would not say if he is gay.

“That’s the last thing I am going to discuss in this state,” he said, apparently referring to Wyoming. Jimenez did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The relationship between the two was “that of a source,” said Jeffrey W. Schneider, spokesperson for ABC News. Told of Newcomb’s description, Schneider said, “I think people can be friends with a source.”

Schneider said that there had been no coordination among Newcomb, Jimenez and anyone at “20/20.”

“The timing of our report had to do with when ABC News felt that we were ready to go to air,” Schneider said.

Schneider was incensed by questions that he felt implied there was something untoward or unethical in the relationship between Jimenez and Newcomb.

“Your reporting on Steve’s relationship with a source is an outrageous smear that is solely designed to undermine Steve’s credibility,” he said. “It’s rather disgusting.”

Judy Shepard said that the “20/20” story had everything to do with Henderson’s appeal.

“It was totally based on that,” she said. “This whole thing has been a long-term publicity campaign to lessen Henderson’s legal situation. There have been two appeals and they’ve both been denied. It will be denied again.”

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