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Defense in Shepard Murder Trial Abruptly Ends its Case

By Julie Cart
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- DENVER

The defense abruptly ended its case Monday in the trial of a man accused of beating Matthew Shepard, just hours after the presiding judge ruled that the so-called “gay panic” defense would not be allowed.

The trial in Laramie, Wyo., moved toward a swift close after State District Judge Barton Voigt ordered that the controversial defense strategy could not be employed. In a ruling drafted over the weekend, the judge said that, despite protests to the contrary from attorneys, the defense’s tactic was effectively the same as a temporary insanity or diminished capacity defense, neither of which is allowed under Wyoming law.

The judge’s ruling was not a surprise. Voigt had earlier scolded Aaron McKinney’s court-appointed defense attorneys for invoking the strategy during opening arguments. But, after the order was read in court on Monday, few of the expected defense witnesses were called. Instead, by early afternoon the defense appeared to jettison the remainder of its case and rested after having called only seven witnesses. Monday was to be the first full day of testimony for the defense.

There was no rebuttal from the prosecution. Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. McKinney, 22, could face the death penalty if convicted of murdering Shepard.

Police say that last October McKinney lured Shepard from a Laramie bar, robbed and beat him then lashed him to a fence. Shepard, 21, died in a hospital days later. Russell Henderson, McKinney’s alleged accomplice, pleaded guilty in April and is serving two life sentences.

The “gay panic” defense was a flash-point in the trial, which had already been the focal point of attention from gay-rights groups and others. The legal strategy holds that an unwanted sexual advance from a gay person to a heterosexual may cause an extreme reaction and may lead to violence.

McKinney’s lawyers argued that sexual abuse as a child and a consensual sexual encounter with a male cousin left him angry and confused.