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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Henderson and McKinney were
incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in
Rawlins but were transferred to other prisons due to overcrowding.
In late 2004,
Elizabeth Vargas reported on an investigation into the murder for
the television program
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
Congress passed such legislation, but it was stripped out in
On March 20, 2007, the
Matthew Shepard Act was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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. "
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
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.
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.