Matthew Wayne Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was a student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. 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.
Matthew Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming to Judy Peck and Dennis Shepard. He attended Natrona public schools including Crest Hill Elementary School and Dean Morgan Junior High School. He later 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.”
In 1995, 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.
Shepard’s murderers, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, awaiting testimony in court (1998)Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, 21-year-old Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell 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 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. At the time of discovery, Shepard was still alive, but in a coma.
Shepard suffered fractures to the back of his head and in 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 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. 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 persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis.
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 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 they 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 because of overcrowding.
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 man, 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 homophobia 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
Main article: Matthew Shepard Act
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 then 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 (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, 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 (S. 1105), but then-President George W. Bush indicated he might veto the legislation if it reached his desk. Ultimately, the amendment was dropped by the Democratic leadership because of opposition from antiwar Democrats, conservative groups, and Bush.
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 President, 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. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63-28 on July 15, 2009. On October 22, 2009, the act was passed by the Senate by a vote of 68-29. President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 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 counter protest 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. Ten years later, The Laramie Project created a second play, based on interviews with members of the town, Shepard’s mother, and his incarcerated murderer.
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.