On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming was beaten, tortured, and left to die. Rescuers took him to the hospital, where he died of severe head injuries 6 days later.
His killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested and charged with first degree murder shortly after the attack. While the defense argued the classic "killed in a rage when he made a sexual advance" argument, the jury ultimately convicted the men of the murder. They were sentenced to life in prison.
Matthew's death brought national attention to hate crime legislation. Following the murder, Matthew's mom because a prominent LGBT rights activist and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Born in 1976 in Casper, Wyoming, Matthew Shepard was the first of 2 songs born to Judy and Dennis Shepard. His younger brother, Logan, was born 5 years later. As a child, he was known for being friendly with his classmates, but was a teasing target because he was small and un-athletic. From an early age, he was interested in politics.
In the summer of 1994, Saudi Aramco hired his father, and his parents moved to the Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran. During that time, Matthew went to the American School in Switzerland, where he graduated in 1995. He was involved in theater, German, and Italian while there. He attended both Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming before ultimately settling as a political science major at the University of Wyoming. He minored in languages, and was a student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.
Matthew was an Episcopalian, and his father described him as an "optimistic and accepting" young man who could relate to anyone. He was approachable and had a great passion for equality.
In 1995, during a trip to Morocco, he was beaten and raped. The experience brought on depression and panic attacks. One of his friends said that his depression drove him to become involved with drugs during college. He was hospitalized multiple times for depression and suicidal ideation.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew was approached by 2 men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at the Fireside Lounge in Laramarie, the city where he went to college. All 3 men were in their early 20s. After a conversation, the guys offered Matthew a ride home. But instead of taking him home, they drove him to a remote, rural area to end his life.
They robbed him. They pistol whipped him. They tied him to a barbed-wire fence and left him to die. His skull was fractured, and he was beaten so brutally that his face was covered entirely in blood, barring the areas that had been cleared by his terrified tears. Neither man was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the attack.
After leaving Matthew for dead, tied to a fence in the near-freezing October temperatures, they returned to town, picking a fight with Hispanic men. The fight resulted in head wounds for the 2 assailants. When an officer arrived, Henderson was arrested and McKinney's truck was searched, where they found a blood-smeared gun and Matthew's credit card. The men tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them, and to help them dispose of evidence.
Matthew wasn't found for 18 hours. He was still tied to the barbed wire fence, in a coma, when a cyclist passed. The scene was so horrifying that he originally mistook the dying man for a scarecrow. He was alive, but covered in blood with blood in his airways when the police arrived to the scene. The medical gloves provided to the Sheriff's Department ran out, and the badass officer used her bare hands to clear an airway in Matthew's mouth. Later, she was informed that Matthew was HIV positive and she may have contracted it from him, but months later, she tested negative for the virus.
Matthew was transported to the hospital. He had suffered fractures to the back of his head and front of his ear. He had severe brainstem damage, his body not regulating his heart rate or body temperature. There were dozens of lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were too severe for doctors to operate. They knew he would not make it.
Matthew never regained consciousness and remained alive on life support. He was pronounced 6 days after the attack at 12:53 AM on October 12, 1998 at the age of 21.
McKinney and Henderson were both arrested and charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. But once Matthew died, the charges shifted from attempted murder to first-degree murder, making them eligible for the death penalty. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chastity Pasley, were charged as accessories after the fact.
At a pretrial hearing for McKinney, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that, in an interview, that days before, he and Henderson had identified Matthew as a robbery target, and they would pretend to be gay to lure him into their truck. but when Matthew put his hand on McKinney's knee, he attacked him. His girlfriend said that the violent reaction was triggered "by how McKinney felt about gays".
On April 5, 1999, Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping charges to avoid the death penalty and a trial. He was sentenced to 2 consecutive life sentences. Henderson's lawyer argued that Matthew was not targeted for being gay.
McKinney chose to go to trial, which took place in October and November of 1999. The prosecutor argued that the men pretended to be gay to gain Matthew's trust, as corroborated by McKinney's girlfriend. The defense tried to argue the "gay panic defense", saying that McKinney (who was pretending to be gay) was temporarily rendered insane in a rage due to sexual advances made by Matthew. This defense was rejected by the judge.
Then, his lawyer argued that they intended only to rob him, and they never intended to kill him. (Well, you did!) The prosecutor argued that the murder was driven by "greed and violence" rather than Matthew's sexual orientation.
Ultimately, the jury found McKinney not guilty of premeditated murder, but guilty of felony murder, a charge still eligible for the death penalty. Through a deal brokered with Matthew's parents, he was sentenced to 2 consecutive life terms instead of the death penalty.
Long after the trial was over, Matthew's murder continued to attract media attention. In 2004, 20/20 aired a report that interviewed many of the main players in the murder and the trial. Many of the statements alleged that the murder was a drug-related robbery that turned violent and not a hate crime. Price, who initially told police that the violence was brought upon by her boyfriend's hate for gay men, said "I don't think it was a hate crime at all."
Horrifically, members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church protested at Matthew's funeral, bearing their well-known homophobic slurs, like "God Hates Fags", and other specific signs like "Matt in Hell".
"Church" members also shouted their anti-gay rhetoric outside of Henderson and McKinney's trial. In response, one of Matthew's friends, Romaine Paterson, organized a group that assembled a circle around the protestors, wearing white robes and gigantic wings, to block the protestors. Though Matthew's parents could still hear the horrible remarks being shouted, the gesture was beautiful and appreciated. Romaine founded "Angel Action", a series of counter-protests in angel garb to shield families from such protests, in 1999.
Matthew's mother, Judy Shepard, worked as a LGBTQ+ rights activist, primarily on issues relating to gay youth, after the death of her beloved son. She and her husband Dennis founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in December of 1998.
Though Matthew was a gay man who was killed in what appeared to be a hate crime, gay rights activist John Stoltenberg criticized his portrayal as simply a "gay bashing" victim, saying it presented 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 men in our community who are sold for sex, ravaged by drugs, and generally exploited."
Despite this, Matthew's memory lives on as a martyr for the LGBTQ+ community, and I think rightfully. Though his rape may have led to his drug addiction and his drug addiction and depression may have led to his interaction with his killers, that doesn't mean that he wasn't killed for being a gay man. In 2019, he was included as 1 of the 5- American "pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes" inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at Stonewall.
Calls for stronger hate crime legislation grew momentum during the coverage of the murder. At the time in Wyoming, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not considered hate crimes. Wyoming's first attempt at legislation to right this wrong failed in a 30-30 tie in the House of Representatives.
Bill Clinton tried to renew attempts to extend hate crime legislation to include gay men and women, and people with disabilities. A Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced to the House and Senate in 1997 and reintroduced in 1999, but only passed in the Senate.
On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced to Congress. After a lot of back and forth (including North Carolina's Representative Virginia Foxx calling Matthew's death a hoax), Barrack Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.
Though recently, McKinney has refused interview requests, he did do an interview in 2009 where he said, "The night I did it, I did have hatred for homosexuals." He also admitted that when they targeted Matthew, they did so because "he was obviously gat."
Henderson has been more open to interviews while he serves his time. In 2018, he volunteers training shelter dogs and works with hospice patients, and believes that the U.S. should continue revamping federal hate crime laws to protect everyone. "I think about Matthew every single day of my life," he said. "I think about him and every single one of those days that I've had that he hasn't had."
Matthew Shepard is a name that is nearly synonymous with "hate crime" to us. And besides the absolute clowns at the Westboro Baptist Church, I would imagine that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, do not believe that people should be tortured and murdered for their sexual orientation.
But violence against the LGBTQ+ community does not only come in the form of pistol-whipping and tying to a barbed wire fence. People who are horrified by what happened to Matthew Shepard might still exhibit homophobia in their everyday lives. Specifically, voting for politicians who wish to strip the LGBTQ+ community of their rights. Politicians who work to "other" the gay community are perpetuating violence and danger against them. It might not look like what happened to Matthew Shepard, but having a president in office who does not value the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and does not believe they should have the same rights as straight people perpetuates a rhetoric that transitions to violence.
Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed for who he was. And sure, passing legislation and normalizing the LGBTQ+ community through art and TV and pop culture is a great step toward equality. But like the great Macklemore says, "no freedom 'til we're equal". While we have made such progress in the years since Matthew Shepard was murdered, we still have nearly 50% of the country who will vote for a man who wouldn't want a man like Matthew to have the same rights as a straight counterpart. And that is horrifying.
RIP Matthew Shepard. #LoveIsLove