Matthew Wayne "Matt" Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was an American student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near the campus on the night of October 6, 1998. He was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died six days later from severe head injuries. Perpetrators Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly after the attack and charged with first degree murder following Shepard's death. The media provided significant coverage to the events after the killing and what role Shepard's sexual orientation played as a motive in the commission of the crime. The prosecutor tried to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that McKinney's murder of Shepard was premeditated and driven by greed. McKinney's defense counsel countered that he had only intended to rob Shepard, but had killed him in a rage when Shepard made a sexual advance towards him. McKinney's girlfriend told police that he had been motivated by anti-gay sentiment but later recanted her statement, saying that she had lied because she thought it would help him. McKinney and Henderson were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
|Born||Matthew Wayne Shepard
December 1, 1976
Casper, Wyoming, U.S.
|Died||October 12, 1998
Fort Collins, Colorado, U.S.
|Cause of death||Murder|
|Alma mater||University of Wyoming|
Shepard's murder spearheaded national and international attention for hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. In October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly the "Matthew Shepard Act" or "Shepard/Byrd Act" for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law. Following her son's murder, Judy Shepard became a prominent LGBT rights activist and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Shepard's death inspired notable films, novels, plays, songs, and other works.
Shepard was born in 1976 in Casper, Wyoming; he was the first of two sons born to Judy (née Peck) and Dennis Shepard. His younger brother, Logan, was born in 1981. The two siblings had a close relationship. Matthew attended Crest Hill Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High School, and Natrona County High School for his freshman through junior years. As a child, he was "friendly with all his classmates," but was targeted for teasing due to his small stature and lack of athleticism. He developed an early interest in politics. Saudi Aramco hired his father in the summer of 1994, and Shepard's parents subsequently resided at the Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran. During that time, Shepard attended the American School in Switzerland (TASIS), from which he graduated in May 1995. There, he participated in theater and took German and Italian courses. He then attended Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming, before settling in Denver, Colorado. Shepard became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie with a minor in languages, and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.
He was described by his father 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." Michele Josue, who had been Shepard's friend and later created a documentary about him, Matt Shepard is A Friend of Mine, described him as "a tenderhearted and kind person." In February 1995, Shepard was beaten and raped during a high school trip to Morocco. This caused him to experience depression and panic attacks, according to his mother. One of Shepard's friends feared that his depression had driven him to become involved with drugs during his time in college. Multiple times, Shepard was hospitalized due to his clinical depression and suicidal ideation.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie; the three men were in their early twenties. McKinney and Henderson decided to give Shepard a ride home. They subsequently drove the car to a remote, rural area, and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tie him to a fence, and leave him to die. Media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol-whipping and his fractured skull. Reports described how Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially cleansed by his tears. The assailants' girlfriends testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the attack. McKinney and Henderson testified that they discovered Shepard's address and intended to steal from his home as well.
After brutally attacking Shepard and leaving him tied to the fence in near-freezing temperatures, McKinney and Henderson returned to town. McKinney proceeded to pick a street-fight with two Hispanic youths, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara. The fight led to head wounds for both Morales and McKinney. Police officer Flint Waters arrived at the scene of the fight. He arrested Henderson, searched McKinney's truck and found a blood-smeared gun and Shepard's shoes and credit card. Henderson and McKinney later tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them and help them dispose of evidence.
Eighteen hours after the attack, Shepard was still tied to the fence and in a coma when he was discovered by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. Reggie Fluty was the first police officer to arrive at the scene; she found Shepard alive but covered in blood. The medical gloves issued by the Albany County Sheriff's Department were faulty, and Fluty's supply ran out. She decided to use her bare hands to clear an airway in Shepard's mouth, which was filled with blood. A day later, she was informed that Shepard was HIV positive and that she might have been exposed to the virus due to cuts on her hands. After taking an AZT regimen for several months, she tested negative for HIV. Judy Shepard later wrote that she learned of her son's HIV status during his dying stay in the hospital following the attack.
Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is out-of-state and 64 miles from the crime scene. He had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brainstem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate his heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. 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 in the hospital. While he lay in intensive care and in the days following the attack, candlelight vigils were held around the world.
Arrests and trialEdit
McKinney and Henderson were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, were charged with being accessories after the fact. After Shepard's death, the charges were upgraded from attempted murder to first-degree murder, meaning that the two male defendants were eligible for the death penalty.
At McKinney's November 1998 pretrial hearing, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that McKinney had stated in an interview on October 9 that he and Henderson had identified Shepard as a robbery target and pretended to be gay to lure him out to their truck, and that McKinney had attacked Shepard after Shepard put his hand on McKinney's knee. Detective Ben Fritzen testified that Price stated McKinney told her the violence against Shepard was triggered by how McKinney "[felt] about gays".
In December 1998, Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.
On April 5, 1999, Henderson avoided going to trial when he pled guilty to murder and kidnapping charges. He agreed to testify against McKinney in order to avoid the death penalty and received two consecutive life sentences from District Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell. At Henderson's sentencing, his lawyer argued that Shepard had not been targeted because he was gay.
McKinney's trial took place in October and November 1999. Prosecutor Cal Rerucha alleged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay to gain Shepard's trust. Kristen Price testified that Henderson and her boyfriend McKinney had "pretended they were gay to get [Shepard] in the truck and rob him". Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by "greed and violence", rather than by Shepard's sexual orientation. McKinney's lawyer attempted to put forward a gay panic defense, arguing that McKinney was driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Shepard. This defense was rejected by the judge. McKinney's lawyer stated that the two men wanted to rob Shepard but never intended to kill him.
The jury found McKinney not guilty of premeditated murder but guilty of felony murder and began to deliberate on the death penalty. Shepard's parents brokered a deal that resulted in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and were later transferred to other prisons because of overcrowding.
Following her testimony at McKinney's trial, Price pled guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer.
In 2004, Price said she had lied to police about McKinney having been provoked by an unwanted sexual advance from Shephard, telling TV journalist Elizabeth Vargas, "I don't think it was a hate crime at all." Fritzen told an interviewer "Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide..."
Hate crime legislationEdit
Requests for new legislation to address hate crimes gained momentum during coverage of the incident. Under then-existing United States federal law and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes.
Within hours of Shepard's discovery, his friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout began to contact media organizations, claiming that Shepard had been assaulted because he was gay. According to prosecutor Cal Rerucha, "They were calling the County Attorney's office, they were calling the media and indicating Matthew Shepard is gay and we don't want the fact that he is gay to go unnoticed." Tina Labrie, a close friend of Shepard's, said "[Boulden and Trout] wanted to make [Matt] a poster child or something for their cause". Boulden linked the attack to the absence of a Wyoming criminal statute providing for a hate crimes charge.
In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced that defined certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes. The measure failed on a 30–30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include gay individuals, women, and people with disabilities. A Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives in November 1997, and reintroduced in March 1999, but was passed by only the Senate in July 1999.
On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Shepard's parents attended the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007 (S. 1105), however then-President George W. Bush indicated he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The Democratic leadership dropped the amendment in response to opposition from conservative groups and Bush, and because the measure was attached to a defense bill there was a lack of support from antiwar Democrats.
On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, although it failed to pass. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said she was "still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed". Pelosi planned to get the bill passed in early 2008 although she did not succeed. Following his election as President, Barack Obama stated that he was 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 Shepard's murder a "hoax". 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. Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition introduced the bill in the Senate on April 28; it had 43 cosponsors as of June 17, 2009. 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 aftermathEdit
Anti-gay funeral protestsEdit
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, received national attention for picketing at Shepard's funeral with signs bearing homophobic slogans, such as "Matt in Hell" and "God Hates Fags".
Church members also mounted anti-gay protests against Henderson and during McKinney's trial. In response, Romaine Patterson, who was one of Shepard's friends, organized a group that assembled in a circle around the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. The group wore white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protesters. Despite this action, Shepard's parents were still able to hear the protesters shouting anti-gay remarks and comments towards them. The police intervened and created a human barrier between the two groups. Angel Action was founded by Patterson in April 1999.
The murder continued to attract public attention and media coverage long after the trial was over. In 2004, the ABC News news program 20/20 aired a report that quoted statements by McKinney, Henderson, Kristen Price, prosecutor Cal Rerucha, and a lead investigator. The statements alleged that the murder had not been motivated by Shepard's sexuality but was primarily a drug-related robbery that had turned violent. Stephen Jimenez, the producer of the 2004 20/20 segment, went on to write a book on his theory of the attacks, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, which was published in September 2013. The book also said that Shepard and McKinney—who was the killer who had inflicted the injuries—had been occasional sex partners.
Many commentators have criticized Jimenez' views on the attack as sensational and misleading, including by gay advocacy organizations and cultural critics. Some commentators, however, have spoken up to defend it. Police who were involved in the investigation have criticized Jimenez' conclusions, though the prosecutor, Cal Rerucha, said that there was evidence that drugs were at least one factor in the murder.
In the years following her son's death, Judy Shepard has worked tirelessly as an advocate for LGBT rights, particularly issues relating to gay youth. She was a main force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which she and her husband Dennis founded in December 1998.
Gay rights activist John Stoltenberg has said that to portray Shepard as a gay-bashing victim is to present an incomplete account of his victimization: "Keeping Matthew as the poster boy of gay-hate crime and ignoring the full tragedy of his story has been the agenda of many gay-movement leaders. Ignoring the tragedies of Matthew’s life prior to his murder will do nothing to help other young men in our community who are sold for sex, ravaged by drugs, and generally exploited.”
The Meaning of MatthewEdit
The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed is a 2009 biographical book by Judy Shepard about her son Matthew Shepard. Judy Shepard speaks about her loss, her family memories of Matthew, and the tragic event that changed the Shepards' lives and America. The Meaning of Matthew follows the Shepard family in the days immediately after the crime to see their incapacitated son, kept alive by life support machines; how the Shepards learned of the huge public response, the candlelit vigils and memorial services for their child; and their struggles to navigate the legal system.
In popular cultureEdit
Matthew Shepard's life, death, trial, and its aftermath have inspired numerous works, including documentary and narrative films and television shows, stage plays, and musical and written works. Additionally, openly gay NBA player Jason Collins wore the jersey number "98" in honor of Shepard during his 2012–13 season with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards. After Collins joined the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, NBA marketing reported high interest in his "98" jersey and high sales once the item became available for purchase.
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