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The murder of a college student named Matthew Shepherd would become one of the most famous examples of a hate crime in recent history. On October 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell A. Henderson entered a Laramie Wyoming bar which was known as a place where homosexuals often hung out. The two men left the bar with the company of Matthew Shepherd, who they drove to an open field. After being tied to a fence and beaten within an inch of his life, he was left for dead in the near freezing temperatures. The two men had also stolen his wallet and shoes. Eighteen hours later, he was found by two passing motorcyclists who thought at first that Shepherd was a scarecrow because of the way he was positioned on the fence. Shepherd was flown via helicopter to Poudre Valley Hospital (approximately a ninety mile drive in Fort Collins, Colorado) where he remained in critical condition for several days.
Twenty-two year old political science student Matthew Shepherd devoted his life, his friends say, to the fight for human rights. He was a relatively small guy, and it was reported later that he had been beaten up on two previous occasions because he was gay. The more severe of the other two attacks had left his jaw broken the year before.
Matthew had spend many of his growing up years traveling the world - mainly because of his father's job as an oil rig safety inspector. After graduating high school, Matthew settled in the area between Denver, Colorado (where he worked as a waiter and in retail stores) and Laramie, Wyoming where he went to school. He chose Laramie because that was where his father had gone.
Three days later, four arrests were made in connection with the murder of Matthew Shepherd. This included Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson and Chastity Pasley (who lived with Henderson) and Kristin Price - the later two arrested as accessories because they helped the two men dispose of the bloody clothes and helped cover up their crime.
Police Commander Dave O'Malley stated that he believed that robbery was part of the motive since Shepherd's wallet had been stolen, but said that Shepherd was most likely chosen because he was gay. He told a reporter from the associated press that they had a few such hate crimes in Laramie, "But nothing anywhere near this."
With Matthew Shepherd still in a coma at Poudre Valley Hospital, the political hoopla started full force. Gay Rights groups everywhere started calling attention to the fact that the Matthew Shepherd case demonstrated a need to adopt hate crime legislation - anti-gay groups started fighting this because they believed this meant gays would have some sort of special rights. It may be interesting to note that several days prior to Shepherd's beating, several anti-gay groups had begun public campaigns in the Colorado and Wyoming areas. This was also several days before National Coming Out Day - a day devoted to lending support for those who wish to come out of the closet as gay or lesbian.
At 12:53 a.m., on Monday, October 12, 1998, Matthew Shepherd died as a result of his injuries with his family by his side.
As Wyoming investigators tried to continue to build their case against the four people arrested for beating Matthew Shepherd (and covering it up) the news media was filled with as many stories as they could fit about Shepherd, gay rights, the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and other such gay related topics. The internet started to fill up with Matthew Shepherd related websites and memorials. His friends publicly cried out about the need for legislation.
The National Youth Advocacy Coalition released a paper which included Facts About Gay Youth which included statistics like:80 Percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids report verbal abuseThe National Consortium of Anti-Violence Projects also released several reports. Many of these released information they had gathered involving hate crime statistics, but with the disclaimer that the figures were most likely extremely low since the victims of anti-gay hate crimes (weather legally designated as such or not) were not very likely to report their crimes in any official capacity. They also stated, however, that Shepherd's murder had encouraged many more people to report the hate crimes against them.
44 Percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids report threats of attack
17 Percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids have reported being attacked.
66.7 Percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth were threatened/injured with a weapon at school in the past year
62.3 Percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth were in a physical fight in the past year
In consideration of all such reports, the main reaction from the vocal gay community was that something needed to be done. Demonstrations started almost immediately - such as the one the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defimation (GLAAD) held on October 13 at the Albany County Courthouse; or the one on the following day on sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and GLAAD, with speakers such as Helen Hunt, Ellen DeGeneres and her mother Betty, and Elton John. Truly, the cries were being heard around the nation. Even the President of the US released an official statement which read - in part:I hope that in the grief of this moment for Matthew Shepherd's family, and in the shared outrage across America, American's will once again search their hearts and do what they can to reduce their own fear and anxiety and anger at people who are different. And I hope that Congress will pass the Hate Crimes Legislation.
The Associated Press released a wire stating that Colorado State University officials were investigating a controversy around one of the floats in the homecoming day parade. The float was said to have a scarecrow bound on a wooden fence. (The motorcyclists who found Shepherd commented they thought at first he was a scarecrow.) Someone had pinned a note to the scarecrow stating, "I Am gay" and so the scarecrow was pulled off the float. By the time of the parade, the scarecrow was back. Campus authorities later discovered who was responsible and they were expelled.
Matthew Shepherd's funeral, Friday, October 16th, 1998, found a new controversy. Rev. Fred Phelps of the Wesboro Baptist Church (Topeka, Kansas) started organizing a protest over Shepherd's funeral. In his fax announcing this, he urged people to arrive with signs containing messages such as NO TEARS FOR QUEERS, FAG MATT IN HELL, and GOD HATES FAGS. Phelps also started a website with the domain name of www.godhatesfags.com A few protestors did show up at the funeral and caused a little scene, but other than that, things went pretty smoothly, according to those who attended.
On Sunday. April 4, 1999, Court TV reported that there was going to be a delay in the start date of the trial since prosecutors were trying to avoid going to trial by issuing a plea bargain. One commentator on Court TV stated he had a problem with this - stating the case of Allen Schindler, the gay sailor who was brutally bludgeoned to death by shipmates. In that case, one defendant received a ridiculously light sentence for testifying against the other defendant, and they didn't really need to do this since they had sufficient evidence to convict both men.
An article out of the Associated Press stated also that prosecutors were not wanting to play the "gay card". One reaction to this was " Is there actually concern that the jurors might acquit because the murderers were inspired by anti-gay hate? Is the biggest anti-gay murder trial in US history not going to mention the g-word? Are gay Americans required to stay in the closet, even in death?"
On April 15, 1999, it was announced that Russell A. Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder, as well as the robbery and kidnapping of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepherd. He now faces two life sentences. Defense attorney Wyatt Skaggs said that Henderson simply watched while co-defendant Aaron J. McKinney killed Shepherd with the butt of his gun. Henderson's girlfriend pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact of the murder on Dec. 23 and is awaiting sentencing.
When the trial for Aaron McKinney began, his attorney Dion Custis laid their strategy out. While he would not use the insanity defense, he stated that McKinney was under the effects of both alcohol and methamphetamines at the time of the attack, so therefore his judgment was somewhat limited. They also planned on introducing the "Gay Panic" defense, stating that Shepherd could have been responsible for his own death. The Human Rights Campaign issued a statement against what they called the "Blame the Victim" defense, call it a morally vacant, shameless defense, which devalues the lives of gay and lesbian Americans, and tries to justify murder.
According to today's NewsWire: "In opening statements, McKinney's lawyers had indicated their client had forced into homosexual experiences as a child and had been enraged when Shepherd allegedly made a pass at him." The judge pretty much responded, I don't think so. Noting that Wyoming law doesn't recognize the "gay panic" defense, the judge told McKinney's lawyers today that he may bar them from offering the defense.
Aaron McKinney was convicted on two counts of felony murder charges and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for his involvement.
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