The Murder of Matthew Shepard

            On the night of October 6, 1998, one of the most well-known hate crimes against LGBT+ people was committed. Matthew Shepard, 21, was found beaten nearly to death and rushed to Poudre Valley Hospital, where he died six days later on October 12 as a result of the injuries he received from his attackers (Wikipedia).

            Matthew Shepard was born in 1976 to Judy and Dennis Shepard and had one younger brother born in 1981, Logan. He was known to be friendly as a child, but was often bullied because he was smaller and less athletic than other boys in his grade. In 1994, Dennis got a new job and the family moved to the Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dharan, where Matthew attended the American School in Switzerland. He graduated in 1995 and went on to attend multiple colleges (Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming), eventually settling in Denver, Colorado. He was majoring in political science and minoring in languages. During his time there, he was the chosen student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council. In that same year, Matthew experienced the traumatic events of being beaten and raped while on a trip in Morocco. This led to Matthew falling into a deep depression that resulted in drug use during his time at college as well as multiple hospital stays related to suicidal ideation (Wikipedia).

            On October 6, 1998 Matthew was on his way home with two other young men in their 20s, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who had offered him a ride home. The young men had met at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming, after Matthew had finished meeting with friends to plan a LGBT+ awareness week (Sheerin 2018), and left from there. On their way, the two men took Matthew to a more remote area, where they proceeded to rob and beat him, including pistol whipping him between 19 and 21 times which resulted in the head injuries that he later died from (Sheerin 2018). Matthew was subjected to torture and left tied to a barbed wire fence, where he was later found covered in blood except for where his own tears had washed it away (Wikipedia). He was also reportedly subjected to the torture of being set on fire (Bindel 2014). While McKinney and Henderson had intended, according to them, to go to Matthew’s home and steal from there after they left him, they returned to town and got into a fight with two other young men, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara. Morales and McKinney both ended up with head injuries and police were called. While attending the scene, an officer found Matthew’s shoes and credit card in McKinney’s truck after arresting Henderson and searching the truck. Along with Matthew’s belongings, the officer also found a gun with blood on it. While Henderson and McKinney tried to persuade their girlfriends to give them alibis, the girlfriends testified later that both were not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the attack (Wikipedia).

            By the time Matthew was discovered by a cyclist, who at first thought he was a scarecrow, eighteen hours after the attack, he had already slipped into a coma. He was sent to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, WY before being moved to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, CO, which had a better trauma unit. While at Poudre Valley, Matthew never regained consciousness and was deemed too severely injured to operate on. He had brain damage that affected his ability to regulate his heart rate and body temperature along with other vital functions, and had severe cuts all over his face (Wikipedia). His parents were in Saudi Arabia for his father’s job as an oil rig inspector and the two had to rush back to the states to be with their son. Matthew’s parents recognized him because of his dental brace, despite the fact that he was so badly beaten up that his face was barely recognizable (Sheerin 2018). Candlelight vigils were held across the world in his honor, and on October 12, six days after being attacked, Matthew Shepard died at 12:53 AM at 21-years old (Wikipedia).

            Before Matthew’s death, McKinney and Henderson were arrested and charged with attempted murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping and their girlsfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, were charged with accessory after the fact. The attempted murder charge was upgraded to first-degree murder after Matthew’s death, which put the death penalty on the table for the two. In November 1998, Sergeant Rob Debree testified at McKinney’s hearing that McKinney admitted during an interview on October 9th that he and Henderson had marked Matthew as a target for robbery and pretended to be gay to gain his trust. Reportedly, the attack began when Matthew put a hand on McKinney’s knee, which, according to Price, triggered his personal feelings “about gays” and triggered the attack. Pasley plead guilty in December 1998 to accessory after the fact and Henderson plead guilty on April 5, 1999 to the murder and kidnapping chargers. He avoided the death sentence by agreeing to testify against McKinney and received in return two life sentences to be served consecutively. Henderson’s lawyer argued at the sentencing that the attack was not actually motivated by the fact that Matthew Shepard was gay. In October and November 1999, McKinney’s trial took place (Wikipedia).

            Testimony was presented at trial that McKinney and Henderson had pretended to be gay, as Price had stated, in order to gain Matthew’s trust and lure him to their truck to rob him. McKinney’s lawyer attempted to use the gay panic defense, which is still used in some states and claims that the defendant was sent into a temporary state of borderline-insanity due to sexual advances made by someone of the same sex, but the judge rejected this defense strategy. McKinney’s lawyer then tried another defense strategy: the two had intended to rob Matthew and not murder him, but Prosecutor Carl Rerucha argued for premeditated murder. Rerucha argued that the two attacked Matthew motived by their own greed and violence and not by Matthew’s sexuality. McKinney, in the end, was found not guilty of premeditated murder. He was instead found guilty of felony murder and thanks for Matthew’s parents, he was given two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty (Wikipedia). Neither McKinney nor Henderson were charged with a hate crime, as Wyoming law at the time meant it wasn’t possible (Bindel 2014).

            After his death, Matthew Shepard became known worldwide. The attack on him spurred action across the United States that resulted in good things for the LGBT+ community. Along with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which an online community for teenagers to discuss gender identity and sexuality and funds funds educational projects that is run by Judy and Dennis Shepard, there is The Laramie Project, a play that tells Matthew’s story and encourages campaigns against bigotry. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law; it states that crimes motivated by the identity of a victim are hate crimes (Bindel 2014).

            In recent years a new theory has risen about what triggered the attack on Matthew Shepard that has sparked some anger. This theory posits that it wasn’t homophobia that triggered the attack, but possibly crystal meth, which was rampant in the area. This theory has been largely dismissed, and the author behind the book it is presented in has faced much backlash including being boycotted. One of the United States leading LGBT+ journals, The Advocate, published a piece about refusing to read the book, which has also been called revisionist. The term revisionist is usually reserved for groups that deny things like the Holocaust, but can be used when talking about someone trying to rewrite something like the cause of a crime. Jimenez, the author of the book, began his research on the case shortly after Matthew’s death and reportedly discovered that Matthew was addicted to crystal meth and was being pimped out alongside one of his killers, McKinney. I cannot, at this time, find anything beyond Jimenez own statements and book that confirms these claims. The supposed drug abuse was not talked about during the trial, nor the idea that Matthew actually knew McKinney before the murder occurred. However, the officer who arrested McKinney and Henderson praised the book Jimenez wrote, as he believed that drugs were involved in the case and that McKinney and Henderson were after some they believed Matthew had at his home. The officer also claimed that the call of homophobia made no sense to him, as McKinney had apparently been found in compromising positions with men by officers before (Bindel 2014).

            In 2018, Matthew Shepard’s ashes were moved to the Washington National Cathedral, where he rests now among others such as Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, George Dewey, the man for which the rank of admiral was made, and Helen Keller. Matthew’s mother, Judy, reportedly thought the ceremony for his internment at the Cathedral would be more emotional for her than his funeral back in 1998, because she felt so numbed after his death. At his funeral, the well-known hate-mongers the Westboro Baptist Church picketed, and his father, Dennis, had to wear a bullet proof vest when he left the Episcopal church the ceremony was held at. The area was scoured by bomb sniffing dogs, to be safe, and the funeral was protected by SWAT and police snipers. Until his ashes were moved in 2018, his parents kept his ashes in an urn at their home, partially out of fear. They worried that any memorial they may have had put up would be desecrated, a reasonable fear given the homophobia and hate that still plagues our nation 20 years later (Sheerin 2018).

At the time of the sentencing in 1999, the Westboro Baptist Church returned to picket and were met by counter-protestors wearing white sheets draped over PVC piping and duct tape that resembled angels’ wings to block out the bigoted signs the church members were holding. In Laramie, there is a mural commemorating this protest only blocks away from where it occurred (Sheerin 2018).

“Matthew Shepard.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 June 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Shepard.

Bindel, Julie. “The Truth behind America’s Most Famous Gay-Hate Murder.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Oct. 2014, www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/26/the-truth-behind-americas-most-famous-gay-hate-murder-matthew-shepard.

Sheerin, Jude. “Matthew Shepard: The Murder That Changed America.” BBC News, BBC, 26 Oct. 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45968606.

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