May 2, 2009

First Rep. Virginia Foxx called Matthew Shepard's murder a 'hoax'. Then, she turned around and issued a non-apology apology:

I am especially sorry if his grieving family was offended by my statement. I was referring to a 2004 ABC News 20/20 report on Mr. Shepard's death. ABC's 20/20 report questioned the motivation of those responsible for his death. Referencing this media account may have been a mistake, but it was a mistake based on what I believed were reliable accounts.

But it wasn't a reliable account -- a fact that is obviously not well enough known, but still isn't any kind of excuse for uttering that kind of smear. And that's the problem. She spread a lie, a harmful, ugly lie, about Matt Shepard on the floor of the Congress, and she has never made plain to the public that it was a lie.

So you can't really blame Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, for declining to accept: "She's apologizing for semantics."

Yesterday she tried again, and failed just as miserably to actually own up to the problem:

“In the heat of trying to handle the rule on the floor, anybody can use a bad choice of words. Saying that the event was a hoax was a poor choice of words,” Foxx said. “I’ve apologized for that. I never meant in any way to harm the family or offend the family or anybody else for that matter.”

“The term ‘hoax’ was a poor choice of words used in the discussion of the hate-crimes bill,” Foxx said in a statement. “Mr. Shepard’s death was nothing less than a tragedy, and those responsible for his death certainly deserved the punishment they received.”

As David Badash at the New Civil Rights Movement acutely observes:

Foxx’s newest “apology” demonstrates her lack of understanding of the basic issue confronting her: She lied about why Matthew Shepard was killed, and maligned the memory of a 21 year-old college student who, to the world, has become the face of a hate crime victim.

... One non-apology is bad, two demonstrates not only a lack of remorse or decency, but a total lack of understanding of the important and sensitive issues that confront our country.

You see, that ABC News report, by Elizabeth Vargas, was debunked at the time as a journalistic atrocity:

[T]he entire thrust of ABC's "revelations" -- that it was all a drug binge, not a hate crime -- reveals how little the reporters who worked on this understand not just bias crimes but criminal law generally. One factor, such as drug use, does not cancel out another, such as a bias motive. They often in fact appear together and work in conjunction.

There's an even more significant problem with the 20/20 report, however: It is signficantly factually flawed.

The flaw is not so much in what it reports, but what it intentionally omits.

...[T]he 20/20 report substantially omits evidence that was produced at the time establishing McKinney's bias motivation. And indeed, McKinney not only did not deny the existence of this bias, he positively embraced it at trial by attempting a "gay panic" defense.

Incidentally, Fritzen was not the lead investigator in the case. That honor went to a fellow named Rob DeBree. And DeBree has significantly repudiated the "crystal meth" theory.

Here's what he told Beth Loffreda, author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of an Anti-Gay Murder, regarding the attempt by McKinney's defense team to paint him as being under the influence of crystal meth:

Rob DeBree too was unimpressed by the argument -- he told me quite forcefully that the murder didn't look like any meth crime he knew.

In his confession to DeBree, McKinney had denied using meth the day of the murder, and while McKinney had been arrested too late for the police to confirm this through blood testing, DeBree felt certain that for once he had told the truth. Obviously it's unsurprising that the lead investigator would disagree with the defense, but DeBree had some compelling reasons on his side. "There's no way" it was a meth crime, DeBree argued, still passionate about the issue when I met him nearly six months after the trial had ended. No evidence of recent drug use was "found in the search of their residences. There was no evidence in the truck. From everything we were able to investigate, the last time they would have done meth would have been up to two to three weeks previous to that night. What the defense attempted to do was a bluff." ...

There are other serious problems with the report. It omits the fact that McKinney has now changed his story at least three times, and probably more, raising serious doubts about his credibility anyway. It also omits the fact that other detectives in the case testified at trial that the victim was selected for violence, and was beaten especially severely, because he was gay. Their testimony was based on their actual conversations with McKinney and Henderson.

And the piece's later attempts to defend McKinney by tainting Shepard's reputation (claiming he also was a crystal-meth user) should be beneath even the lowliest cops-and-courts reporter, let alone a national news organization. Even if true, whatever Shepard's habits, he did not deserve to die for them.

Nonetheless, as Foxx's remarks suggest -- and as posts from the right-wing blogosphere amply demonstrate -- the belief that the 20/20 report was anything remotely accurate or even a worthwhile piece of journalism has lingered as conventional wisdom on the right. As I recently noted, even Andrew Sullivan and Andrew Breitbart have been known to cough that hairball up in our laps too.

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