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Aaron James McKINNEY

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Hate crime - Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 7, 1998
Date of birth: 1976
Victim profile: Matthew Wayne Shepard, 21 (gay man)
Method of murder: Beating
Location: Albany County, Wyoming, USA
Status: Sentenced to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole on November 3, 1999
 
 

 
 
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McKinney reaches agreement to serve two consecutive life sentences

By Bryan Robinson - CourtTV.com

November 4, 1999

LARAMIE, Wyo. (Court TV)With the consent of the parents of slain gay student Matthew Shepard, Wyoming prosecutors agreed to let Aaron McKinney serve two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole — and thereby avoid the death penalty.

On Wednesday, McKinney was convicted of first-degree felony murder and second-degree murder in the 1998 beating death of Shepard. The jury acquitted McKinney of first-degree premeditated murder, but convicted him of aggravated robbery and kidnapping.

McKinney's two life sentences apply to the combined first-degree felony and second-degree murder and the kidnapping charge. By reaching a plea agreement, McKinney gave up his right to appeal his sentence.

McKinney's death penalty hearing was scheduled to begin Thursday. But, both sides reached a plea agreement that spared McKinney's life and gave him the same sentence his one-time co-defendant Russell Henderson is serving for his role in Shepard's beating death. Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder in April.

Prosecutor Cal Rerucha said the defense had approached him with the plea offer after McKinney's conviction Wednesday. Rerucha admitted he did not even seriosly consider agreement. However, McKinney's attorneys then approached Shepard's parents, and they consented to the plea agreement. Rerucha said the plea would not have happened without the Shepards' support.

McKinney addressed Shepard's parents in court Thursday morning and apologized for the slaying.

"I really don't know what to say other than that I'm truly sorry to the entire Shepard family," McKinney said. "Never will a day go by that I won't be ashamed for what I have done."

Wyoming prosecutors said that McKinney and Henderson met Shepard in a bar, pretended to be gay and lured him into McKinney's truck where they intended to rob him. Shepard was pistol-whipped and beaten brutally and later tied to a fence. He was found 18 hours later and died in a hospital after five days in a coma.

Prosecutors never characterized Shepard's slaying as a hate crime; they portrayed the killing as a robbery-gone-bad. But a tearful Dennis Shepard told the court during McKinney's formal sentencing that his son Matthew will remain in death a symbol of the horror of hate crimes. By allowing McKinney to agree to the plea agreement, the elder Shepard said, McKinney will not become a symbol for anti-death penalty advocates.

"I would like nothing better than to see you die Mr. McKinney, but now is the time to heal," Shepard's father told the 22-year-old roofer. "Every time you wake up in your cell, remember you had the opportunity or the ability to stop your actions that night.

"Mr. McKinney, you will not become a symbol," the elder Shepard continued. "Just a miserable symbol and a more a more miserable end. That's fine with me."

McKinney's defense had claimed at trial that he did not intend to kill Shepard. McKinney's actions, his defense said, were partly aggravated by abuse of alcohol and drugs. McKinney's lawyers also argued that an alleged unwanted sexual advance by Shepard sent their client into a rage that led to the gay student's fatal beating.

Defense attorneys Dion Custis and Jason Tangeman would have wanted to further explore the alleged reasons for McKinney's violent reaction to Shepard's alleged advances, but could not. On Monday, Judge Barton Voigt barred McKinney's defense from presenting a so-called "gay panic defense."

The defense argued in opening statements that McKinney's "rage" — and his fatal beating of Shepard — was spurred partly by the defendant's own prior homosexual experience. The defense has contended that McKinney was sexually abused by a male neighborhood bully when he was 7 years old and had a "confusing" experience at age 15 with one of his cousins.

But Judge Voigt, unconvinced that McKinney's lawyers had found a legal basis or established relevance for their arguments, torpedoed that defense theory.

McKinney's lawyers insisted that they were not employing a "gay panic defense." They argued that McKinney's prior homosexual experience and abuse would help explain why he reacted the way he did to Shepard's alleged advance and would give insight into his state of mind.


McKinney convicted of first-degree felony murder in Matthew Shepard slaying

By Bryan Robinson - CourtTV.com

November 3, 1999

LARAMIE, Wyo. (Court TV)Armed with his incriminating confession to robbery, a Wyoming jury convicted Aaron McKinney of first-degree felony murder and second-degree murder in the 1998 beating death of gay student Matthew Shepard. The jury acquitted McKinney of first-degree premeditated murder, but convicted him of aggravated robbery and kidnapping.

McKinney's death penalty hearing begins Thursday. At best, the jury could recommend life in prison without parole for McKinney.

In a case that sparked the outrage of gay activists nationwide, Wyoming prosecutors said that McKinney and one-time co-defendant Russell Henderson met Shepard in a bar, pretended to be gay and lured him into McKinney's truck where they intended to rob him. Shepard was pistol-whipped and beaten brutally and later tied to a fence. He was found 18 hours later and died in a hospital after five days in a coma.

Prosecutors never characterized Shepard's slaying as a hate crime; they portrayed the killing as a robbery-gone-bad. However, McKinney's defense claimed that he did not intend to kill Shepard.

McKinney's actions, his defense claimed, were partly aggravated by abuse of alcohol and drugs. McKinney's lawyers also argued that an alleged unwanted sexual advance by Shepard sent their client into a rage that led to the gay student's fatal beating.

Defense attorneys Dion Custis and Jason Tangeman would have wanted to further explore the alleged reasons for McKinney's violent reaction to Shepard's alleged advances, but could not. On Monday, Judge Barton Voigt barred McKinney's defense from presenting a so-called "gay panic defense."

The defense argued in opening statements that McKinney's "rage" — and his fatal beating of Shepard — was spurred partly by the defendant's own prior homosexual experience. The defense has contended that McKinney was sexually abused by a male neighborhood bully when he was 7 years old and had a "confusing" experience at age 15 with one of his cousins.

But Judge Voigt, unconvinced that McKinney's lawyers had found a legal basis or established relevance for their arguments, torpedoed that defense theory.

McKinney's lawyers insisted that they were not employing a "gay panic defense." They argued that McKinney's prior homosexual experience and abuse would help explain why he reacted the way he did to Shepard's alleged advance and would give insight into his state of mind.

However, in addition to Judge Voigt's ruling, McKinney's own confession damaged his defense. Initially, his lawyers argued that he never intended to rob Shepard and only took his wallet as an "afterthought." But police investigators testified that they found Shepard's wallet in a dirty diaper in McKinney's home. McKinney's one-time girlfriend, Kristen Price, testified that he told her that he and Henderson had planned to pose as homosexuals and rob Shepard before he was beaten to death.

In his confession, McKinney admitted his intention to rob Shepard and said he delivered the beating while Henderson stood by. "We really had no intention of hurting this guy," McKinney said. "It was to take him out and scare him and take his wallet and leave." McKinney also admitted hitting Shepard three more times when the gay student admitted he was still able to read back the license plate numbers on his assailant's truck.

Jurors considered two kinds of first-degree murder charges: premeditated murder and felony murder. The felony murder charge refers to the prosecution's robbery and kidnapping allegations and, unlike premeditated murder, does not require intent to kill. Felony murder only requires intent to commit the underlying felony. Both types of first-degree murder carry sentences of either life without parole or the death penalty. Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder in April and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

Jurors also had to consider a long list a lesser-included charges against McKinney: second-degree murder, manslaughter, aggravated robbery, larceny, kidnapping, false imprisonment and felonious restraint.


Matthew Wayne Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was a student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and subsequently murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. He was attacked on the night of October 6–7, 1998 and died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 12, from severe head injuries.

During the trial, witnesses stated that Shepard was targeted because he was gay. Shepard's murder brought national, as well as international, attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.

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.

Background

Matthew Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming as the oldest son to Dennis and Judy Shepard. He attended Natrona public schools including Crest Hill Elementary School and Dean Morgan Junior High School. He attended Natrona County High School from his freshman to sophomore year, before transferring to The American School in Switzerland. After graduating from high school 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.

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."

Because of his sexuality, Shepard faced physical and verbal abuse. 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. One of Shepard's friends feared his depression caused him to become involved with drugs during his time in college.

The murder

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.

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.

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

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

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.

The prosecutor in the case charged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to gain Shepard's trust to rob him.

During the trial, Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price (the respective girlfriends of McKinney and Henderson at the time of the event) 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, and tied him to a fence with a rope from McKinney's truck while Shepard begged for his life. Media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol whipping and his smashed skull. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears.

Both girlfriends also testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs at the time.

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.

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

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."

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.

Price, in her interview with Vargas, ultimately openly remarked: "I do not think it was a hate crime at all. I never did." 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."

In the report, Price and McKinney's long-time friend Tom O'Connor, on whose property McKinney and Price once lived, both stated their belief that McKinney was bisexual. O'Connor 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.

The 20/20 report also mentioned a statement by O'Connor that Shepard told him he was HIV-positive.

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."

Hate crime legislation

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. Under current United States federal law and Wyoming state law, 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.

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. In 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation, but it was stripped out in conference committee.

On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act 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, but then-President Bush indicated he might veto the legislation if it reached his desk. 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 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.

The U.S. House of Representatives debated expansion of hate crimes legislation on April 29, 2009. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the "hate crime" labeling of Matthew Shepard's murder a "hoax." Matthew Shepard's mother was said to be in the House gallery when the congresswoman made this comment.

Foxx later called her comments "a poor choice of words". The House passed the act, designated H.R. 1913, by a vote of 249 to 175. The bill was introduced in the Senate on April 28 by Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition; it had 43 cosponsors as of June 17, 2009, and is currently on the route to being voted upon. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63-28 on July 15, 2009.

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, displaying signs with slogans such as "Matt Shepard rots in Hell", "AIDS Kills Fags Dead" and "God Hates Fags".

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".

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. While the organization had no name in the initial demonstration, it has since been ascribed various titles, including 'Angels of Peace' and 'Angel Action'. 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.

Many musicians have written and recorded songs about the murder. Three narrative films and a documentary were made about Shepard: The Laramie Project, The Matthew Shepard Story, Anatomy of a Hate Crime and Laramie Inside Out. The Laramie Project is also often performed as a play. The play involves recounts of interviews with citizens of the town of Laramie ranging from a few months after the attack to a few years after. The play is designed to display the town's reaction to the crime.

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.


Matthew Shepard

Dkol.com

Twenty-one year old University of Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, died October 12, 1998 at 12:53 a.m. after spending five days in a coma due to massive injuries and head trauma in a robbery and hate crime assault.

The 5'2, 102 pound, Shepard never emerged from his coma and died the morning after America's celebration of National Coming Out Day.

Shepard had met Aaron McKinney (22), and Russell Henderson (21) of Laramie in a local bar on campus called Fireside Lounge. Henderson had said that he and McKinney had already been drinking beer when they went to the bar and ran into Shepard. Fireside bartender Matthew Galloway later testified at Aaron McKinney’s trial that he served drinks to Henderson and McKinney and said they did not seem drunk (this countered the McKinney defense that liquor and drugs incited the attack on Shepard.) Galloway told the court he watches for intoxication and said McKinney drank very little. “He had no mannerisms or actions that would lead me to believe he was in a state of intoxication.” The two had led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew, believing they wanted to discuss the politics and struggle of the gay movement, followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck.

After getting in the truck, Henderson said "McKinney pulled out a gun and told Matthew Shepard to give him his wallet." McKinney said "Guess what. We're not gay. And you're gonna get jacked." When Matthew refused, McKinney hit him with the gun. With Henderson behind the wheel, they drove more than a mile outside Laramie, as Matthew begged for his life, McKinney struck him while Henderson laughed. "He (McKinney) told me to get a rope out of the truck," Henderson said. According to Henderson, McKinney allegedly tied Shepard's beaten body to a wooden split-rail post fence, robbed him of his wallet and patent leather shoes, continued to beat him and then left him to die for over 18 hours bleed profusely in near freezing temperatures "with only the constant Wyoming wind as his companion," stated Prosecutor Calvin Rerucha in a McKinney hearing held November 10, 1999.

A cyclist, Aaron Kreifels, happened by chance to discover Matthew's body October 7, 1998 and rushed to the nearby home of University of Wyoming professor Charles W. Dolan to phone police. “He sounded to me like his lungs were full of blood. He was breathing hard,” Kreifels testified October 26, 1999 at the Aaron McKinney trial. Dolan and Kreifels then both went back to Shepard and waited for help to arrive. Dolan also testified during McKinney’s trial that “I made the call (to 911). He (Shepard) was bloody. There was a large pool of blood in his right ear.”

"Streaks of tears had washed the blood away"

Patrol Officer Reggie Fluty described in her report that when she found Shepard's body, his hands were bound behind his back so tightly to a buck fence that it was difficult to cut him free. Her only duty at the time was not to gather evidence but to assist Shepard. Fluty tried to cut the ropes from Shepard’s hands and when she bent him over he stopped breathing so she turned him back over. “His hands were tied tight and I wanted to free him.” She also noticed that he wore braces on his teeth. And though his face was caked in blood, his face was clean where streaks of tears had washed the blood away. “The only white skin I saw (on his face) was where he had been crying.” A watch and Matthew’s school ID card was found near the crime scene. In her testimony in the Aaron McKinney trial Tuesday, October 26, 1999, Fluty testified that trying to comfort Shepard while waiting for the ambulance she told him “Baby boy, I’m so sorry this happened to you.” During Fluty’s testimony, Prosecutor Cal Rerucha showed the jury pictures of Shepard’s face and the blood stained ground below where Shepard had been left for 18 hours. Some jurors winced as they viewed graphic photos of Shepard’s injuries, including his bloodied face and ear.

“Baby boy, I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

Matthew Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, where doctors determined Matthew’s full extent of injuries. What was earlier reported as burns, turned out to be welt marks from beatings via a blunt object. Matthew's skull was so badly crushed that his brain stem was seriously damaged. Meaning that vital functions including his heartbeat, breathing and temperature control were critically impaired, and doctors were unable to operate.

Hospital staff inserted a drain in his skull to reduce pressure caused by his swollen brain, used a ventilator to keep Matthew breathing and inserted a tube in his throat to keep his airway open.

Even with these measures, Matthew's blood pressure began to dive around midnight. His parents had flown in from Saudi Arabia where his father worked. They remained at his bed side until Matthew passed away.

McKinney and Henderson were charged with first-degree murder, which carried with it the possibility of the death penalty. They were also charged with kidnapping and aggravated robbery.

A .357 Magnum is suspected of being the weapon with which Shepard was beaten with, was found in McKinney's home, police said.

Two women described as the suspect's girlfriends, Chastity Vera Pasley (20) and Kristen Leanne Price (18) were charged as accessories after the fact of first-degree murder. On December 23, 1999, Pasley pleaded guilty to her charges. The two women allegedly hid the bloody shoes of Henderson in a storage shed in Pasley's mother's home and provided the suspects with alibis. Shepard's shoes, coat and credit card were found in McKinney's pick-up truck. His wallet was later found at McKinney's home, wrapped in a dirty nappy in a garbage pail.

"Could he feel the pain? Could he be thirsty? Could he feel the cold?”

Dr. Patrick Allen of the Larimer County, Colorado coroner’s office which performed the autopsy on Matthew Shepard testified in the Aaron McKinney trial that some of Shepard’s injuries were caused by fists, “but the skull fractures were caused by a blunt instrument consistent with that of a gun. Matthew Shepard died as a result of the blunt trauma injuries he sustained to his head and face.” Albany County District Attorney Cal Rerucha questioned Dr. Allen “When Matthew Shepard was tied to the fence, could he feel the pain? Could he be thirsty? Could he feel the cold?” “Yes, he may have felt pain because he may never have completely lost conciouness,” Dr. Allen said.

Shepard's brutal murder has sparked outcries from all political organizations. The Conservative Christian Right have denounced accusations that their homophobic rhetoric of hate is the reason for the savage beating.(Not only are they evil doers but cowards as well. Ed.) Nationwide gay and lesbian organizations have likened Shepard's being tied to a wooden fence as being crucified on a cross as Jesus had.

Matthew's small size and genuinely non-judgmental and accepting personality have sent the citizens of Laramie, WY, the United States and many people world wide into mourning. Many cities held candlelight vigils after Shepard’s death and gay organizations are rallied for the passage of a Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the Senate and Congress.

Adding fuel to the fire, The Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers out of Topeka, Kansas protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard in Casper, Wyoming where Shepard was raised. Phelps’ ministry carried signs of varying messages from "God Hates Fags" to "Fag Matt Burn In Hell." Public Safety Director Art de Werk took precautions to prevent any disruption of the family's mourning. The anti-gay Phelps and his ministry were in full force again at Henderson's hearing April 5 with similar verbal epitaphs and vulgar signs. A peaceful counter protest was held against Phelps. Young people dressed as angels stood silently in front of the protesters trying to block from view the Phelps followers. "I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate-filled, " said Romaine Patterson, 21, a friend of Shepard's who organized the angels' counter demonstration. "As a young person, I feel it is necessary to show the great nation that we live in that there doesn't need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world"

"He came into the world premature and left the world premature and we are most grateful for the time we had with them, " Mrs. Shepard told through a statement issued through the hospital soon after Matt’s death.

Friends have also spoken to the media remembering their friend. "Matt wasn't openly gay," Walter Boulden, a long-time friend said. "He didn't tell people in his class he was gay. He was the kind of guy who would just walk into a room and people would think he was gay just because he was slightly built, rather feminine. He certainly didn't hide his sexuality if someone asked him." Boulden said Shepard was "not the kind of person who goes to bars and tries to pick up people. Matt absolutely did not do one night stands. He likes meeting other gay people, so he could talk about the experience and the struggle. "

Shepard was born and raised in Casper, Wyoming. He attended Natrona County High School until his sophomore year. When his parents moved to Saudi Arabia because of his father's employment as an oil rig safety instructor, Matthew finished his high school career in Lugano, Switzerland and spent time on the East coast and in Denver before deciding to attend University of Wyoming.

"Just last week he was talking about how glad he was that he had made the decision he made, that he was incredibly comfortable here, felt safe for the first time," Boulden said soon after Matthew’s death.

Shepard majored in political science at UW and wanted to pursue a Foreign Service career, perhaps moving forward gay rights internationally.

Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis, stated that Matthew "would emphasize he does not want the horrible actions of a few very disturbed individuals to mar the fine reputations of Laramie or the university. " Dennis Shepard reportedly relayed through Wyoming governor Jim Geringer, that he did not want his son's death to become "a media circus" and that "we should not use Matt to further an agenda."

Geringer said that Shepard's father also said: "Don't rush into passing all kinds of new hate-crimes laws. Be very careful of any changes and be sure you're not taking away rights of others in the process to race to this."

Russell Henderson pleaded guilty on April 5 and was sentenced to two life terms in prison with virtually no possibility for parole, while Henderson's girlfriend Chastity V. Pasley was sentenced to 15 to 24 months in prison.

"He was my son, my first born, but more, he was my friend, my confidant"

At Henderson's sentencing trial April 5, 1999, appearing solemn and wearing gray pants and a light gray shirt, he rose and made a brief apology to Shepard's parents. "I hope you never experience a day or night without experiencing the terror, humiliation, hopelessness and helplessness my son felt that night," Judy Shepard told him through her tears. "He was my son, my first born, but more, he was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be," she said. Dennis Shepard described Matthew as a son "blind to people's differences," a friend to people of all nationalities, religions and lifestyles. "Who will be their friend now? " he asked Henderson. Recalling moments from his son's child hood, Shepard described how he taught Matthew to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Frere Jaques," and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Turning to face Henderson at his sentencing he said: "You, Mr. Henderson, sank the boat, ruined Jaques and shot down the star." Judge Jeffrey Donnell told Henderson he did not believe he (Henderson) was truly sorry for the "savage and brutal" crime. "Quite frankly the court does not believe you really feel a true sense of remorse for your role in this matter." Prosecutor Cal Rerucha said after the hearing, "My hope is that Russell Henderson will die in the Wyoming State penitentiary."

In a March, 1999 interview with Vanity Fair, Judy Shepard discussed that while Matthew was on vacation in Morocco during his senior year in high school, a gang there raped him. "He was never the same after Morocco, " his mother said. "And neither were we. We were always worried about his physical safety and his mental state. It seemed to him it was taking forever to feel safe."

The Vanity Fair article also reported that Matthew tested HIV-positive in the hospital after the October attack. Mrs. Shepard said that since her son was raped in Morocco, he had been tested periodically for HIV and the results had been negative. The magazine article did not give any sources other than the interview with Mrs. Shepard. Albany County Coroner Julie Heggie told The Associated Press that she had no information about whether Matthew was HIV-positive. "I know that's not in the autopsy report, " Heggie said.

In the Vanity Fair issue, Mrs. Shepard said that her son had suffered periodic clinical depression and had been taking an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety drug. She described her son as a sometimes-naive young man who was often too trusting for his own good. "It's a very frightening concept as a parent that your son now becomes a martyr, a public figure for the world. He's just our son, " Mrs. Shepard stated. She said she was disturbed that some sympathizers had compared her son to Jesus Christ. "You must understand, it's like putting him on a pedestal that just won't work. I'm concerned that if people find out he wasn't a saint, they'll be disappointed or angry or hate him, " Mrs. Shepard declared.

Friend Walter Boulden said Shepard's parents knew of his sexual orientation, but "I don't know how accepting they are of it, and I think that's been and issue between them, and I think it's something they're really going to struggle with."

In May, 1999, Judy Shepard spoke before an U.S. Senate Panal to urge passage of a hate crimes legislation. "I will never again experience Matt's laugh, his wonderful hugs, his stories, " she said. "I know this measure is not a cure-all, and it won't stop all hate violence. But it will send the message that this senseless violence is unacceptable and un-American. My son Matthew was the victim of a brutal hate crime, and I believe this legislation is necessary to make sure no family again has to suffer like mine, " Shepard testified through choked emotions.

In a search for solace and for a meaning to this tragedy, a Washington D.C. based gay lobbying group known as Human Rights Campaign (HRC) unveiled two public service announcements Thursday (Sept. 14, 1999) featuring Judy Shepard. In the spots, Judy Shepard tells viewers that they should "choose to understand... In a perfect world, because your child is gay, you don't worry about their safety. You just worry about them being happy. " The spots were presented at a luncheon in Los Angeles honoring Judy Shepard, and arrived at stations September 20 and began airing in October, nearly a year after Matthew's death. HRC and the Matthew Shepard Foundation produce them.

Jury selection in the Aaron McKinney trial began Monday, October 11, 1999 with opening statements and the actual trial began Monday, October 25, 1999. The jury was made up of 10 men and 6 women, including four alternates. Three students attending the University of Wyoming, where Shepard was a freshman studying human rights, were also seated on the jury. Defense lawyers Jason Tangeman and Dion Custis outlined their strategy in their opening statements to the jury by clearly blaming everything but the accused for the murder.

Tangeman told the jury that drugs, alcohol and past instances of sexual abuse on defendant Aaron McKinney, as well as overt sexual advances by diminutive Shepard all conspired against McKinney to commit the crime. Tangeman told the jury several instances in which McKinney, starting at age 5, had been abused by other boys. In one case, when he was 7, McKinney had been forced to perform oral sex and engage in a sexual act with another 7-year-old neighborhood bully who deemed McKinney a homosexual. Tangeman also noted a "confusing" experience at age 15 with one of McKinney’s cousins. Tangeman said the defendant was sexually abused as a child and lost control when Shepard made a pass at McKinney. Coupled with the fact that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, his past sexual abuse provoked the rage that lead to him beating Shepard.

Tangeman quoted McKinney’s testimony to the police: "’I don’t know what happened. I blacked out. I felt possessed. It was like I left my body.’" "It's like I could see what was going on, but somebody else was doing it, " McKinney said on the police confession tape. McKinney said he and Henderson spent the $20 they took from Shepard's wallet on "cigarettes, coke and gas in the car. Mostly the purpose was to take him home and get his wallet. " Pointing as evidence to McKinney’s intent to hurt but not kill Shepard, Tangeman again quoted a testimonial to the police by McKinney: "’I didn’t intend to kill him. I just hit him too hard.’ " On this basis McKinney’s defense admitted McKinney’s involvement and participation in the crime, even instigation of it, but instead are asked jurors not to convict on charges of first-degree murder, but instead on manslaughter which does not carry the death sentence as a penalty. "Did Matthew Shepard deserve to die? No, that’s ridiculous. No manslaughter victim deserved to die. That’s what Aaron McKinney is guilty of, manslaughter, " said Tangeman.

Tangeman outlined the events of Oct. 6, 1998 in his opening statements to the jury as such:

McKinney and Henderson went to a few local bars after work and stopped at the Fireside where they met Shepard. After buying a pitcher of beer with their change, McKinney and Henderson played pool. Eventually Shepard headed down to the bar where Henderson and McKinney were sitting. "Eventually he asks for a ride home. From the demeanor of Mr. Shepard he (McKinney) thought he was gay, " Tangeman said. "Matthew Shepard grabbed (McKinney’s) genitals and licked his ear and at that point his past trauma’s bubbled up inside him and fueled by drugs and alcohol in his own words he ‘left his body,’ " Tangeman stated. Fellow defense attorney Dion Custis further stated that Shepard, not McKinney, was the aggressor the night he died and that he sought out McKinney and Henderson for a ride. Custis suggested that Shepard was looking for a sexual partner that night and even gave McKinney a false home address while they drove. Custis said Shepard made an unwanted advance towards McKinney when he put his hands on the defendant’s groin and stuck his tongue in McKinney’s ear. These acts sent McKinney into "five minutes of rage and chaos. "

"Matt Shepard begged for his life, but McKinney gave him blow after blow, "

Prosecutor Cal Rerucha knew the "gay panic" defense was coming and counterattacked with his opening outline of the events that happened. Fireside employees will testify, "If anything stood out, it was the fragileness of Shepard, " Rerucha stated. Henderson and McKinney approached Shepard. They had talked and agreed to rob Shepard. "McKinney and Henderson picked Shepard out of the bar as an easy mark. The three left the bar in a truck, Henderson driving them out of town. Aaron said, ‘We’re not gay and you’re getting jacked,’ " Rerucha continued. McKinney then began hitting Shepard over the head with a .357-Magnum pistol. Rerucha said that when the beating started, Shepard pleaded with his attacker, telling him that while there was only $20 in his wallet, there was $150 at his home and they could have that. After stopping in a deserted field McKinney made Shepard get out of the truck. "McKinney was worried Mr. Shepard could see his license plates, " Rerucha said. Rerucha said "McKinney asked ‘Can you read my license plate?’ Matthew Shepard said, ‘Yes I can read your license’ and read it. " This further enraged McKinney who struck him three more times over the head as hard as he could, knocking him unconscious. "He read it back to me and I hit him again, " McKinney said in his taped confession to the police. "Matt Shepard begged for his life. Matt Shepard negotiated for his life, but McKinney gave him blow after blow, " Rerucha said.

Rerucha said his case would not deal with Shepard’s gay lifestyle. "It will simply be about the pain, suffering and death of Matthew Shepard at the hands of the defendant, Aaron James McKinney."

Russell Henderson's girlfriend Chastity Pasley testified at the murder trial of Aaron McKinney Thursday, October 28, 1999 saying that she and McKinney's girlfriend Kristen Price became accomplices in the crime. " (Henderson) kept telling me that it's all right. (Shepard will) be OK. " She told the court that at the time she did not know who Shepard was. Pasley went on to say that Price telephoned her in a panic when the two men stayed out late the night of the attack. "She was kind of freaking out. She said Aaron just came in and said he killed somebody. " This led to objections by the defense that the remarks were hearsay. Pasley said she had misgivings about getting involved and was "mad at myself" the next day as she, Henderson, McKinney and Price were at first going to burn (Henderson's) bloody clothes but ended up stashing them in a trash container near Cheyenne, Wyo. Police never found the clothes but did find Henderson's bloody shoes in a shed belonging to Pasley's mother. Pasley said the shoes had been hidden rather than thrown away because they were expensive. "It looked like there was flesh on the clothes, " Pasley testified about the bloody clothes. During testimony, Pasley told jurors that Henderson and McKinney got together after the beating "so they could get their stories straight. I knew that they beat somebody up and he was tied," she said. Pasley and Price also arranged to get their stories straight by at first telling police that the two women watched movies together the night of the attack and knew nothing of it. McKinney sat back in his chair at the defense table and smiled briefly when Ms. Pasley pointed to him.

According to Kristen Price, who testified shortly after Pasley, McKinney told her that "a gay guy had been hitting on him. They decided in the bathroom to pretend they were gay, get him in the truck and rob him. " Price told the jury that she was at home when McKinney, covered in blood, returned from a night out with Henderson and told her, "I think I just killed someone. " Ms. Price said she didn't think McKinney was telling the truth about the killing - "He always exaggerated so much I didn't believe him" - and that Henderson later assured her "that Aaron was just exaggerating. " Price said McKinney washed off a wallet, two driver's licenses and a voter registration, all presumable belonging to Shepard. Price also said she did not see any signs that McKinney had been using drugs that night, even though she had frequently shared methamphetamines with him in the past, though she did acknowledge that she was not in McKinney's company continuously in the hours before the attack. During direct examination by the prosecution, Price testified that McKinney had said that Shepard touched either his leg or Henderson's leg while they were in the truck. However, during cross-examination, defense had her agree that McKinney said Shepard touched his leg. Despite that concession, Price's testimony countered defense claims that McKinney did not intend to rob Shepard and that he was drunk and on drugs when he killed Shepard last October.

Judge Baron Voigt told defense attorney Dion Custis that he found no provisions in state law that allowed him to present a gay panic defense as the defense had been building. He noted unless the defense could satisfy him with the defense brief on the issue, that he would disallow testimony and evidence to support it. Voigt has called the "gay panic" defense a fraud said that someone who did not like people of a different race could kill such a person and then try to introduce evidence about his own feelings and experiences.

When defense could no longer produce an effective strategy, McKinney’s attorney’s rested their case after calling only a handful of witnesses. After deliberating 10 hours, the jury returned a verdict of felony murder, kidnapping and aggrivated robbery on Wednesday, November 3, 1999. But they found him not guilty of first degree premeditiated murder – meaning they were not convinced McKinney intended to kill Matthew Shepard. The verdict still left open the possibility of either life in prison or the death penalty.

"I will never get over Judy Shepard's capacity to forgive"

Before the jury could hear opening arguments in McKinney’s death penalty trial, trial watchers were stunned when McKinney agreed to serve life in prison without parole and promised never to appeal his conviction, and thereby avoided the death penalty. The jury was prepared to begin hearing arguments Thursday, November 4, 1999 on whether McKinney should get the death penalty or life in prison. Instead he accepted a deal that his lawyers had proposed to prosecutors and Shepard's parents. "I will never get over Judy Shepard's capacity to forgive, " prosecutor Cal Rerucha said. Rerucha also said he found it ironic that the defense proposed the deal and asked the Shepard's to "give some relief, some type of pity to a person who had murdered their son."

Exactly why the Shepard's agreed to the deal was unclear, though it may have been to avoid years of appeals. Rerucha said the appeal process is "almost inhumane. " Dennis Shepard spoke in court Thursday to Mr. McKinney, "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney, but now is the time to begin the healing process. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember Matthew isn't. Every time you wake up in that prison cell, remember you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. " "You screwed up, Mr. McKinney, " Shepard said. "You made the world realize that a person's lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution and violence."

As Shepard spoke, he paused at times to wipe away tears, his voice breaking. Several jurors wept, along with members of both legal teams, spectators, Shepard's mother, Judy, and friends of the Shepards. McKinney's eyes welled up as he listened. McKinney's stepsister, Afton, walked out crying, her head resting on McKinney's father's shoulder. "I really don't know what to say other than that I'm truly sorry to the entire Shepard family, " Aaron McKinney said in court. "Never will a day go by I won't be ashamed for what I have done." Dennis Shepard said his family wanted the trial to show that "this was a hate crime, pure and simple, with the added ingredient of robbery. " He also asked Congress to pass a stronger hate-crime law and said he supports the death penalty.

Since McKinney's trial ended and the gag order associated with it lifted, investigators DeBree and O'Malley have been spreading an additional message as well: there is absolutely no proof that Shepard groped McKinney as defense attorney's insisted at the trial. The investigators were able to reveal last week that in the confession Henderson made three days following his plea bargain, he said he had no awareness of Shepard having made any such move towards McKinney -- and Shepard was squeezed between the two assailants in the front seat of McKinney's father's truck at that time. Even McKinney's own taped confession, which refers at one point to Shepard grabbing at him, at another point says it was "as if he was going to" do so. Henderson's confession also details the advance planning of the robbery, his and McKinney's pretending to be gay to lure Shepard to the truck, and McKinney's attack on Shepard beginning in the truck and continuing for some minutes there before the trio reached the notorious fence. Although transported to the Albany Courthouse to testify in McKinney's trial, Henderson decided at the last minute he would not testify for either side. As for whether the attack was actually a hate crime, DeBree told "Salon" magazine that McKinney and Henderson "knew damn well (Shepard) was gay... It started out as a robbery and burglary, and I sincerely believe the other activity (the repeated pistol-whipping that killed Shepard) was because he was gay."

Kristen Price, the former girlfriend of Aaron McKinney, plead guilty to a reduced charge of one misdemeanor charge of interfering with a police officer and was sentenced to 180 days in jail. She was credited with 120 days for time already served and the remaining 60 days were suspended. Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney are currently serving two-life sentences after pleading guilty to the robbery and murder of Matthew Shepard. Price's accomplice and Henderson's former girlfriend Chastity Pasley is serving 15 - 24 months as an accessory.

"We need to do this for Matthew and... to keep this from happening again."

Matthew Shepard's parents Dennis and Judy Shepard visited Washington, DC November 8 1999to lobby for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HPCA) which, among other provisions, would make sexual orientation a protected category under federal hate crimes law. " This is one piece of unfinished business that we have now that the trial is over, " Dennis Shepard said. "We need to do this for Matthew and for everybody else to keep this from happening again. " The Shepards met with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and with President Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff John Podesta, who assured them that both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are committed to enacting the law.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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