January 2, 2009

Matthew Shepard


Matthew Wayne Shepard was a gay American student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and subsequently murdered near Laramie. He was attacked on the night of October 6–October 7, 1998 and died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 12, from severe head injuries. His murder brought national as well as international attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.[1]

Russell Arthur Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder and kidnapping, allowing him to avoid the death penalty. Aaron James McKinney was convicted of felony murder and kidnapping. Henderson is currently serving two consecutive life sentences and McKinney is serving the same but without the possibility of parole.[2]


Shepard, oldest son of Dennis Shepard and Judy Shepard (née Peck), was born in Casper, Wyoming on December 1, 1976. He attended Crest Hill Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High, and the first two years of high school at Natrona County High School. He was a member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Shepard spent his junior and senior years of high school at The American School In Switzerland. After graduating in 1995, he attended Catawba College and Casper College before he relocated to Denver. Shepard then became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.[1]

He was described by his parents as "...an optimistic and accepting young man [who] had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."[1]

However, Shepard faced his own inner battle. During a high school trip to Morocco he was beaten and raped causing him to withdraw and experience bouts of depression and panic attacks, according to his mother Judy Shepard. A friend of Shepard feared his depression caused him to become involved in the local drug scene during his time in college.[3]

The attack

Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, 21-year-old Shepard met McKinney and Henderson in a bar. McKinney and Henderson offered Shepard a ride in their car.[4] Subsequently, Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area, and left to die. McKinney and Henderson also found out his address and intended to rob his home. Still tied to the fence, Shepard was discovered eighteen hours later by Aaron Kreifels, who at first thought that Shepard was a scarecrow. At the time of discovery, Shepard was still alive, but in a coma.

Shepard suffered a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital signs. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. As he lay in intensive care, candlelight vigils were held by the people of Laramie.[5]

He was pronounced dead at 12:53 A.M. on October 12, 1998 at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.[6][7][8][9] Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly thereafter, finding the bloody gun as well as the victim's shoes and wallet in their truck.[3]

The two men had attempted to get their girlfriends to provide alibis.[10]


The trial

In court the defendants used varying rationales to defend their actions. They attempted to use the "gay panic defense", arguing that they were driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Shepard. At another point they stated that they had only wanted to rob Shepard and never intended to kill him. [3]

The prosecutor in the case charged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to gain Shepard's trust to rob him.[11] During the trial, Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price (the pair's then-girlfriends) testified under oath that Henderson and McKinney both plotted beforehand to rob a gay man. McKinney and Henderson then went to the Fireside Lounge and selected Shepard as their target. McKinney alleged that Shepard asked them for a ride home. After befriending him, they took him to a remote area of Laramie where they robbed him, beat him severely (media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol whipping and his smashed skull), and tied him to a fence with a rope from McKinney's truck. Shepard begged for his life. Both girlfriends also testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson were under the influence of drugs at the time.[12][13] The beating was so severe that the only areas on Shepard's face that were not covered in blood were those where his tears had washed the blood stains away.[14]

Henderson pleaded guilty on April 5, 1999, and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. The jury in McKinney's trial found him guilty of felony murder. As it began to deliberate on the death penalty, Shepard's parents brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.[2]

Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins but were transferred to other prisons due to overcrowding.[15]

ABC's 20/20 report

In late 2004, ABC's Elizabeth Vargas reported on an investigation into the murder for the television program 20/20. Though Vargas primarily relied on personal interviews with people involved with the matter, the report was billed as exploring "New Details Emerging in the Matthew Shepard Murder."[3] At the forefront was the possibility that the murder had in fact been motivated by drugs rather than Shepard's sexual orientation. McKinney, Henderson and Kristen Price (McKinney's girlfriend) claimed in these interviews that the attack was a result of heavy drug use, a robbery and a beating gone awry.[3] Price, in her interview with Vargas, ultimately openly remarked: "I do not think it was a hate crime at all. I never did."[3] This statement contradicted Price's first interview with 20/20 in 1998, in which she said (of McKinney and Henderson's attack): "They just wanted to beat him bad enough to teach him a lesson, not to come on to straight people, and don’t be aggressive about it anymore,”[16]. In the report, Price and McKinney's long-time friend Tom O'Conner, on whose property McKinney and Price once lived, also stated that they believed McKinney was bisexual. O'Conner stated that he and McKinney had sex in the past. However, when Vargas asked McKinney whether he had ever had a sexual experience with another male, he said that he had not.[3]

The 20/20 report also stated that an acquaintance of Shepard's, Tom O'Connor, said that Shepard informed him of his HIV+ status.[3]

Retired Police Chief of Laramie, Commander Dave O'Malley — who was also interviewed by ABC and criticized the 20/20 report — pointed out that the drug motive does not necessarily disqualify the anti-gay motive: “My feelings have been that the initial contact was probably motivated by robbery because they needed money. What they got was $20 and a pair of shoes ... then something changed and changed profoundly... But, we will never, ever know because Matt’s dead and I don’t trust what [McKinney and Henderson] said.”[17]

Hate crime legislation proposed

Henderson and McKinney were not charged with a hate crime, as no Wyoming criminal statute provided for such a charge. The nature of Matthew Shepard's murder led to requests for new legislation addressing hate crime, urged particularly by those who believed that Shepard was targeted on the basis of his sexual orientation.[18][19] Under current United States federal law[20] and Wyoming state law,[21] crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation are not prosecutable as hate crimes.

In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, but the measure failed on a 30-30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.[22]

At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include gay and lesbian individuals, women, and people with disabilities. These efforts were rejected by the United States House of Representatives in 1999.[23] In 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation, but it was stripped out in conference committee.[24]

On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Matthew's parents, Judy and Dennis, were present at the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007[25] (S. 1105), but President Bush indicated he might veto the legislation if it reached his desk.[26] He did veto the bill in 2007.

On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, though failed to get it passed. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said "she is still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed." Pelosi planned to get the bill passed early in 2008[27] though did not succeed in that plan. Following his election as 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama stated that he is committed to passing the Act.[28]

Public reaction and the aftermath

The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, led by Fred Phelps, picketed Shepard's funeral as well as the trial of his assailants,[29][30] displaying signs with slogans such as "Matt Shepard rots in Hell", "AIDS Kills Fags Dead" and "God Hates Fags".[31] When the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to display any sort of religious message on city property if it was legal for Casper's Ten Commandments display to remain, Phelps attempted and failed to gain city permits in Cheyenne and Casper to build a monument "of marble or granite 5 or 6 feet (1.8 m) in height on which will be a bronze plaque bearing Shepard's picture and the words: "MATTHEW SHEPARD, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God's Warning: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22."[32][33][34][35]

As a counterprotest during Henderson's trial, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard's, organized a group of individuals who assembled in a circle around the Phelps group wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protesters. Police had to create a human barrier between the two protest groups.[36] While the organization had no name in the initial demonstration, it has since been ascribed various titles, including 'Angels of Peace' and 'Angel Action'.[29][30] The fence to which Shepard was tied and left to die became an impromptu shrine for visitors, who left notes, flowers, and other mementos. It has since been removed by the land owner.

Patterson has since become a prominent writer and radio personality, who currently co-hosts a talk radio program on SIRIUS OutQ.

In the years following Shepard's death, his mother Judy has become a well-known advocate for LGBT rights, particularly issues relating to gay youth. She is a prime force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which supports diversity and tolerance in youth organizations.

In 1999, openly gay rocker Melissa Etheridge wrote and recorded a song for her Breakdown album entitled "Scarecrow," which was dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard. Also in 1999, Tori Amos wrote and recorded a song for the compilation No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees called "Merman"; it was also released on her compilation A Piano: The Collection.

In 2001, Elton John wrote a song about Shepard entitled "American Triangle"; it was released on the album Songs from the West Coast.

In 2003 the mathcore band Protest the Hero released a song entitled "Fear And Loathing in Laramie" about Shepard's murder.

In 2004, the folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary released the song "Jesus Is on the Wire" on their album In These Times; it includes a reference to Shepard.[37]

In 2006 the metal band Trivium released a song entitled "And Sadness Will Sear". Brian Houston, a Northern Irish singer-songwriter, released the song "The Ballad of Matthew Shepard" on his 2006 album, Sugar Queen.

Two years later, the Dutch band a balladeer recorded "Poster Child", honoring Matthew and also created a matching video. Mike Lewis, former lead singer of the bands Puller and For Love Not Lisa, wrote a poem about Matthew for The Poetry Tour, a poetry reading tour featuring Lewis, Mark Soloman of Stavesacre, and Reese Roper of Five Iron Frenzy. The poem was subsequently published in an issue of HM Magazine which reviewed the tour.

On December 1, 2008, "High Pitch Mike" Morales (a Howard 100 News producer and reporter) acknowledged he was gay and expressed his support for the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Source: Wikipedia

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