LARAMIE, WY — The murder of Matthew Shepard occurred October 12, 1998. He was only 21 years old. By any measure, the University of Wyoming student’s demise stands as a horrifying tragedy and a heinous, unconscionable act. But the crime quickly took on far larger connotations than just being a homicide.
Shepard died following a six-day coma that resulted from Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney — a pair of local hoodlums he met at the Fireside Bar, a relatively gay-friendly tavern — beating, torturing, and pistol-whipping him.
Henderson and McKinney culminated their pummeling of Shepard by tying him to a deer-proofing fence on a remote, rural roadside and setting him on fire. Afterward, they drove into town and picked a fistfight with a pair of Hispanic youths.
Eighteen hours passed before a passing bicyclist thought he saw a burnt, battered scarecrow hanging up on a fence. Upon closer inspection, the cyclist saw that the figure was Matthew Shepard and he summoned help.
The news story broke fast and went global. Worldwide candlelight vigils honored Shepard as he lingered in the hospital. When Shepard finally expired, the impact proved historic.
In death, Matthew Shepard instantly took on new life as an icon for the unconscionable human toll of homophobia. His murder mobilized the LGBT community to take definitive, outspoken, and active stands against “queer-bashing.” The case also initiated revolutionary legal changes by way of “hate crime” legislation nationwide.
Born in 1976, Matthew Wayne Shepard grew up in Casper, Wyoming. He was an outstanding student, showing an aptitude for politics, languages, and theater. The University of Wyoming selected Shepard to represent the school at the Wyoming Environmental Conference.
Still, Shepard struggled hard with a dark side. He fell prone to panic attacks and suicidal depression, and other mental-health issues prompted multiple hospital visits. To medicate himself, Shepard turned to drugs, both prescribed and otherwise. As a young gay man, he also acquired the HIV virus.
On October 6, 1998, after a meeting of the LBGT student group on campus, Shepard dropped by the Fireside Bar by himself for a drink.
High-school dropouts Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney idled in, bought a pitcher of beer with loose change, and struck up a conversation with Shepard. After hanging out for a while, the three men left the Fireside just after midnight and got into McKinney’s truck. The nightmare ensued from there.
Police picked up Henderson and McKinney after their post-murder brawl, during which they both got injured. Laramie PD Sergeant Rob Debree took McKinney’s statement.
According to court documents, McKinney said he and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to lure Shepard out of the bar so they could rob him. They reportedly commenced the attack after Shepard put his hand on McKinney’s knee. Throughout his interview, McKinney used anti-gay epithets, derisively referring to Shepard as a “fag” and a “queer.”
After committing their atrocities against Shepard, McKinney said they stole his wallet and keys with the intention of robbing the victim’s residence. On their way to Shepard’s apartment, then, the two killers got into the fight with the other two youths.
As authorities built their cases against Henderson and McKinney, the Shepard family had to lay Matthew to rest. Media attention had already turned what might have been a private, personal memorial and mourning period into a major news event.
Worse, the virulently anti-gay, publicity-chasing Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) entered the picture, adding to the Shepards’ anguish and overall tensions.
The WBC protested outside Shepard’s funeral, shouting coarse rhetoric and waving picket signs with messages such as, “Matt Burns in Hell,” and their perpetual go-to, “God Hates Fags.”
Later, the WBC kept up their demonstrations during legal proceedings against Shepard’s killers, but they were counter-protested by “Matthew’s Angels.” The group, founded by Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson wore angel costumes with broad white wings that they used to obscure the WBC’s signs from public view.
On April 5, 1999, Russell Henderson cut a deal with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping, and agreed to testify against McKinney in exchange for being spared the death penalty. He got two consecutive life sentences instead.
McKinney attempted to roll the dice with a trial. His lawyers maintained that robbery was the lone motivation, although they did propose a “temporary insanity” scenario, claiming that the killer experienced “gay panic” and was not responsible for his actions. The judge tossed that idea out quick.
The jury found McKinney guilty of felony murder. He, too, is presently serving two consecutive life sentences.
In the firestorm surrounding the Shepard murder and his killers’ convictions, political pressure arose to enact or expand “hate crime” regulations. Arguments about the various aspects of such rulings continued for years.
Finally, on October 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” into law. The same year as Shepard’s murder, James Byrd, Jr., a Black man, was tied behind a car and dragged to death by a pair of racists.
According to the United States Department of Justice:
“[The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Law] creates a new federal criminal law which criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when:
(1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin of any person or (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.”
Around the same time as the law passed, doubts arose in the media — including in some factions of the gay press — as to whether anti-homosexual bigotry may have been Henderson and McKinney’s sole motive in murdering Shepard.
Naturally, this proposition has proven hugely controversial. What remains nondebatable, of course, is that Matthew Shepard met a fate that absolutely no one deserves, and that his loss did lead to gains in understanding and taking actions to correct the fully horrendous impact of unchecked hate.
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Main photo: Matthew Shepard [Wikipedia]