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The murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After) triggers a national discussion about hate crimes, centering on the question of whether Shepard’s murder should be classified as such. Shortly after Shepard’s murder, his friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout tell reporters that Shepard may have been killed because of his homosexuality. “I know in the core of my heart it happened because he revealed he was gay,” Boulden tells a reporter. “And it’s chilling. They targeted him because he was gay.” Boulden and Trout also speak with county law enforcement officials. Kristen Price, the girlfriend of one of Shepard’s assailants, Aaron McKinney, cooperates with police after being charged with being an accessory to the murder (the charges are later reduced); she tells them that McKinney reacted violently to Shepard’s alleged advances. Later, Price will recant that part of her story and say that McKinney’s motive was to rob Shepard. In 2004 she will say: “I don’t think it was a hate crime at all. I never did.” Former Laramie police detective Ben Fritzen will agree, saying: “Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide.… If it wasn’t Shepard, they would have found another easy target. What it came down to really is drugs and money and two punks that were out looking for it.” McKinney will tell an ABC News reporter: “I would say it wasn’t a hate crime. All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.” He will explain the excessively savage beating he delivered to Shepard as triggered by his methamphetamine abuse. Others disagree. In 1999, Sergeant Rob DeBree, the chief investigator in the case, will scoff at the idea that gay hatred had nothing to do with the crime. “Far from that!” he will say. “They knew damn well he was gay.… It started out as a robbery and burglary, and I sincerely believe the other activity was because he was gay.” Former Laramie police commander Dave O’Malley doesn’t think drug use motivated the attack, either. “I really don’t think [McKinney] was in a methamphetamine-induced rage when this happened,” he will say. “I don’t buy it at all. I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they [had] hatred toward him for being gay.” Shepard’s mother Judy Shepard will agree, saying: “I’m just not buying into that. There were a lot of things going on that night, and hate was one of them, and they murdered my son ultimately. Anything else we find out just doesn’t, just doesn’t change that fact.” McKinney will deny knowing Shepard before the murder, but some townspeople say they saw Shepard and McKinney together in the weeks before the murder, presumably seeing Shepard buying meth from McKinney. (ABC News 11/26/2004)
'Gay Panic Defense' - McKinney’s legal strategy is to use the so-called “gay panic defense,” where assailants justify their actions by claiming they were driven temporarily insane because of their victim’s homosexuality. McKinney’s lawyer Dion Custis will go even farther, claiming that Shepard made a physical advance towards McKinney. “It started because Matthew Shepard grabbed [McKinney’s] balls,” Custis will tell the jury. “It continued because Aaron McKinney was a chronic meth user.” However, McKinney’s fellow assailant Russell Henderson will later admit that Shepard never made any advances towards either of his killers. Henderson will not testify against McKinney, as is arranged, so Custis is free to make the argument to the jury. (Cullen 11/6/1999) Of Henderson, his landlord says: “I perceived him as a follower. I have a hard time imagining him coming up with anything like this on his own. It seems extremely out of character, but sometimes people make really bad choices.” (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Search for Justification - Experts say that the details of the incident fit a larger pattern of anti-gay crimes. Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist, observes: “Once someone is labeled as homosexual, any glance or conversation by that person is perceived as sexual flirtation. Flirtation, in turn, is viewed as a legitimate reason to assault.” Men like McKinney and Henderson justify their violent assaults on gay men, Franklin notes, by using excuses such as “self-defense” from homosexual overtures, ideological opposition to homosexuality, thrill seeking, and peer approval. (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Presidential Response - President Clinton condemns the killing, saying that “crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country.” Clinton presses Congress to expand the federal hate-crimes law to cover offenses based on disability or sexual orientation. “The public outrage in Laramie and all across America today echoes what we heard at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes last year,” Clinton says. “There is something we can do about this. Congress needs to pass our tough hate crimes legislation. It can do so even before it adjourns, and it should do so.” Governor Jim Geringer (R-WY) demurs when asked if Wyoming should pass similar legislation, saying that he is against giving one group “special rights” over others. (CNN 10/12/1998) Several gay entertainment figures openly declare the murder to be a hate crime. Actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who hosts Shepard’s memorial service in Washington, DC, tells the gathered mourners that she publicly announced her sexual orientation in part “to keep this type of thing from happening.” Gay singer Melissa Etheridge will write a song, “Scarecrow,” as a tribute to Shepard (the title comes from Shepard’s initially being mistaken for a scarecrow when he was found). (Hall and Hall 2006, pp. 575)
Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, is murdered on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, who is openly gay, is found brutally beaten, burned, and tied to a fence, where he hung, comatose, for some 18 hours before being found. He is rushed to a local hospital, but dies five days later. Local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are quickly charged with Shepard’s death. Because of the extreme brutalization they inflicted on Shepard, prosecutors chararcterize the murder as a hate crime: according to the charges, the two killed Shepard because of their hatred of homosexuals. (Brooke 10/10/1998; ABC News 11/26/2004) The girlfriends of the two accused murderers are also arrested and charged as accomplices after the fact, but the charges are mitigated after they cooperate with the investigation. (Brooke 10/10/1998) Investigators quickly learn that Shepard had been beaten twice in recent months by other Laramie residents who, he said, attacked him because of his homosexuality. (CNN 10/12/1998) “He was very open about his sexuality,” says a friend, anthropology student Tina LaBrie. “I admired him for that because it is very courageous to be yourself even when others disagree.” (Brooke 10/10/1998)
Fatal Truck Ride - Henderson and McKinney approach Shepard at a bar with the intention of robbing him. According to the two, Shepard, unaware of their plans, tells them he is too drunk to drive and asks for a ride. In some versions of the events, McKinney and Henderson represent themselves as gay in order to entice Shepard into the truck. The three climb into McKinney’s pickup; Henderson drives. McKinney will claim that at some point during the ride Shepard places his hand on McKinney’s leg. It is then that McKinney strikes Shepard with a .357 Magnum pistol. However, McKinney later says, “I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway.” (In 1999, Henderson will admit that McKinney lied about the sexual advance from Shepard, and say that Shepard never touched either man. And tapes of McKinney’s post-arrest confession bear out Henderson’s denial.) McKinney tells Shepard: “Guess what? I’m not gay—and you just got jacked.” McKinney forces Shepard to give him his wallet, which only has $30 in it. McKinney continues pistol-whipping Shepard; prosecutors will say that McKinney continues beating Shepard because of his hatred for gays, but McKinney will later claim he loses control of himself because he is high on methamphetamine, saying: “Sometimes when you have that kind of rage going through you, there’s no stopping it. I’ve attacked my best friends coming off of meth binges.” McKinney and Henderson drive to a secluded spot outside Laramie where they can dump Shepard and flee. They stop at a wooden fence, where Henderson ties Shepard to the fence with a length of rope while McKinney continues to beat Shepard. Henderson later claims McKinney strikes him in the face when he tries to stop McKinney from continuing to assault Shepard. After tying Shepard to the fence, Henderson returns to the truck, leaving McKinney alone with Shepard. McKinney later says he believes it is his final blows to Shepard that ultimately kill him. (Leavitt 10/18/1998; Cullen 11/6/1999; ABC News 11/26/2004) Sergeant Rob DeBree, the chief investigator in the case, will later say, “That is one thousand percent torture, what occurred to that boy.” (Cullen 11/6/1999)
Altercation in Parking Lot Alerts Police to Murder - McKinney takes Shepard’s wallet and shoes, gets back in the truck, and tells Henderson to return to Laramie. McKinney later says his intention was to burglarize Shepard’s apartment. However, McKinney and Henderson meet up with two other young men whom police say are vandalizing cars; McKinney attacks the two men, attracting police attention. Police Sergeant Flint Waters runs down Henderson; after apprehending him, he sees several incriminating items in the bed of Henderson’s truck, including a bloodied large-frame revolver, a coat, a shoe, and a length of rope. Waters later says, “Seeing that the gun covered in blood, I assumed that there was a lot more going on than what we’d stumbled onto so far.” (ABC News 11/26/2004) The two assailants’ girlfriends attempt to cover for them, inventing an alibi for them and throwing Henderson’s bloodied clothing into a trash bin. McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, says of Henderson after the murder: “He was crying, and he kept throwing up. He just came in and hugged me, and said, ‘I’ve done something horrible. I deserve to die.’” (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Discovery - Aaron Kreifels, a fellow University of Wyoming student, finds Shepard by chance after struggling to get his mountain bike through the sandy, rugged terrain. He later tells a Denver Post reporter: “I got up and noticed something out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a scarecrow, so I didn’t think much of it. Then I went around and noticed it was a real person. I checked to see if he was conscious or not, and when I found out he wasn’t, I ran and got help as fast as I could.” Kreifels reaches a house in the nearby Sherman Hills subdivision and calls police. As to Shepard’s condition, he will say, “I don’t really want to go into details about that.” Of the two assailants, Kreifels will say: “I can’t even grasp what these people were thinking, how they could do such a thing. There’s no excuse for it. Whatever their excuse is, it’s meaningless, because there’s just no excuse for taking another’s life.” (Hughes 10/15/1988) McKinney’s girlfriend briefly attempts to blame Shepard for the attack, claiming Shepard had made a pass at her boyfriend in recent days, and embarrassed him in front of his friends. (Brooke 10/12/1998)
Father of Assailant: Gay Victim Caused Increased Media Coverage - The father of one of the assailants, Bill McKinney, condemns the attack, but also complains about the attention Shepard’s murder receives in the media. The national press “blew it totally out of proportion because it involved a homosexual,” McKinney tells a Denver reporter. “Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news.” (Brooke 10/12/1998)
Funeral - Anti-gay protesters will picket Shepard’s funeral, displaying signs such as “God Hates Fags” and “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell” (see October 14, 1998).
Hate Crime - The question of whether Shepard’s murder qualifies as a “hate crime” is hotly debated in the weeks following the murder (see October 9, 1998 and After).
Multiple Life Sentences - McKinney and Henderson are found guilty of murder, kidnapping, and, in McKinney’s case, aggravated robbery. They accept double life sentences, in a plea deal agreed to by Shepard’s family, in order to escape the possibility of a death sentence. They waive their right to appeal as part of their plea deal. “Bottom line, Aaron was afraid he was going to die,” DeBree later says. (Cullen 11/5/1999; Cullen 11/6/1999; ABC News 11/26/2004) Dennis Shepard, the father of the victim, speaks for the family in court. “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney,” he says. “However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt.… Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.” (Cullen 11/5/1999)
Triggers Legislation - Shepard’s death will be a catalyst for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (see October 28, 2009). Shepard’s mother will create a foundation in her son’s name dedicated to promoting tolerance and diversity. And Shepard’s story will be retold in documentaries, television movies, and a play called “The Laramie Project,” which will often be performed in schools to address the issues of hate and prejudice. (ABC News 11/26/2004)
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