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Matthew Shepard
BornDec. 1, 1976
BirthplaceCasper, Wyoming
DiedOct. 12, 1998 (aged 21)
Place of deathFort Collins, Colorado
Alma materUniversity of Wyoming
ParentsDennis and Judy (Peck) Shepard

Matthew Wayne Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was a gay American student at the University of Wyoming who was fatally attacked near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6–7, 1998. Shepard died from severe head injuries at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 12, 1998. His murder brought national attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.[1]

His two assailants, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, were convicted of the crime and imprisoned. Henderson is currently serving two consecutive life sentences and McKinney is serving the same but without the possibility of parole.[2]


Shepard, oldest son of Dennis Shepard and Judy Shepard (née Peck), was born in Casper, Wyoming. He attended Crest Hill Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High, and the first two years of high school at Natrona County High School. He was a member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Shepard spent his junior and senior years of high school at The American School In Switzerland. After graduating in 1995, he attended Catawba College and Casper College before he relocated to Denver, Colorado. Shepard then became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.[1]

He was described by his parents and good close friend from Orlando, Florida, Frankie J. McGraw, as " optimistic and accepting young man ...who... had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person that was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."[1]

The attack

Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, 21-year-old Shepard met McKinney and Henderson in a bar. McKinney and Henderson posed as gay men and offered Shepard a ride in their car.[3] Subsequently, Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area, and left to die. McKinney and Henderson also found out his address and intended to burgle his home. Still tied to the fence, Shepard was discovered eighteen hours later by a cyclist, who at first thought that Shepard was a scarecrow. At the time of discovery, Shepard was still alive, but in a coma.

Shepard suffered a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital signs. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. As he lay in intensive care, candlelight vigils were held by the people of Laramie.[4]

He was pronounced dead at 12:53 A.M. on October 12, 1998 at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.[5][6][7][8] Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly thereafter, finding the bloody gun as well as the victim's shoes and wallet in their truck.[9]

The two men had attempted to get their girlfriends to provide alibis.[10]

The trial

During court cases both of the defendants used varying stories to defend their actions. They attempted to use the "gay panic defense", arguing that they were driven to temporary insanity by Shepard's alleged sexual advances toward them. At another point they stated that they had only wanted to rob Shepard and never intended to kill him.

The prosecutor in the case charged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to gain Shepard's trust to rob him.[11] During the trial, Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price (the pair's then-girlfriends) testified under oath that Henderson and McKinney both plotted beforehand to rob a gay man. McKinney and Henderson then went to the Fireside Lounge and selected Shepard as their target. McKinney alleged that Shepard asked them for a ride home. After befriending him, they took him to a remote area of Laramie where they robbed him, beat him severely (media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol whipping and his smashed skull), and tied him to a fence with a rope from McKinney's truck. Both girlfriends also testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson were on drugs at the time.[12][13]

Henderson pleaded guilty on April 5, 1999, and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. The jury in McKinney's trial found him guilty of felony murder. As it began to deliberate on the death penalty, Shepard's parents brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.[2]

Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins but were transferred to a Nevada prison due to overcrowding.[14]

ABC's 20/20 report

In late 2004, ABC's Elizabeth Vargas conducted an investigation into the murder for the television program 20/20. Though Vargas primarily relied on personal interviews with people involved with the matter, the report was billed as exploring "New Details Emerging in the Matthew Shepard Murder."[15] At the forefront was the possibility that the murder had in fact been motivated by drugs rather than Shepard's sexual orientation. McKinney, Henderson and Kristen Price (McKinney's girlfriend) claimed in these interviews that the attack was a result of heavy drug use, a robbery and a beating gone awry.[16] Price, in her interview with Vargas, ultimately openly remarked: "I do not think it was a hate crime at all. I never did."[16] This statement contradicted Price's first interview with 20/20 in 1998, wherein she said (of McKinney and Henderson's attack): "They just wanted to beat him bad enough to teach him a lesson, not to come on to straight people, and don’t be aggressive about it anymore,”.[17] In the report, Price and McKinney's long-time friend Tom O'Conner, on whose property McKinney and Price once lived, also stated that they believed McKinney was bisexual. However, when Vargas asked McKinney whether he had ever had a sexual experience with another male, he said that he had not.[18]

Retired Police Chief of Laramie, Commander Dave O'Malley — who was also interviewed by ABC and criticized the 20/20 report — pointed out that the drug motive does not necessarily disqualify the anti-gay motive: “My feelings have been that the initial contact was probably motivated by robbery because they needed money. What they got was $20 and a pair of shoes ... then something changed and changed profoundly... But, we will never, ever know because Matt’s dead and I don’t trust what [McKinney and Henderson] said.”[19]

Hate crime legislation proposed


Henderson and McKinney were not charged with a hate crime, as no Wyoming criminal statute provided for such a charge. The disturbing and brutal nature of Matthew Shepard's murder prompted calls for new legislation addressing hate crime, urged particularly by those who believed that Shepard was targeted on the basis of his sexual orientation.[20][21] Under current United States federal law[22] and Wyoming state law,[23] crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation are not prosecutable as hate crimes.

In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, but the measure failed on a 30-30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.[24]

At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include gay and lesbian individuals, women, and people with disabilities. These efforts were rejected by the United States House of Representatives in 1999.[25] In 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation, but it was stripped out in conference committee.[26]

On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (Template:USBill) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Matthew's parents, Judy and Dennis, were present at the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007[27] (Template:USBill), but President Bush has indicated he may veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.[28]

On December 10, 2007, congressional powers had failed to get a bipartisan bill passed, which would update the hate crimes legislation, also attached to the Department of Defense Authorization bill. However, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, says "she is still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed." Pelosi plans on trying to get the bill passed early in 2008.[29]

Public reaction and the aftermath

See also: Cultural depictions of Matthew Shepard

The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, led by Fred Phelps, picketed Shepard's funeral as well as the trial of his assailants,[30][31] displaying signs with slogans such as "Matt Shepard rots in Hell", "AIDS Kills Fags Dead" and "God Hates Fags".[32] When the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to display any sort of religious message on city property if it was legal for Casper's Ten Commandments display to remain, Phelps made attempts to gain city permits in Cheyenne and Casper to build a monument "of marble or granite 5 or Template:Convert in height on which will be a bronze plaque bearing Shepard's picture and the words: "MATTHEW SHEPARD, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God's Warning: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22."[33][34][35][36]

As a counterprotest during Henderson's trial, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard's, organized a group of individuals who assembled in a circle around the Phelps group wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protesters. Police had to create a human barrier between the two protest groups.[37] While the organization had no name in the initial demonstration, it has since been ascribed various titles, including 'Angels of Peace' and 'Angel Action'.[30][31] The fence to which Shepard was tied and left to die became an impromptu shrine for visitors, who left notes, flowers, and other mementos. It has since been removed by the land owner.

In the years following Shepard's death, his mother Judy has become a well-known advocate for LGBT rights, particularly issues relating to gay youth. She is a prime force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which supports diversity and tolerance in youth organizations.

People in the entertainment industry expressed their own outrage and responded in various ways to the attack:

  • Ellen DeGeneres hosted Shepard's memorial services in Washington, D.C.
  • Three films were made about the Shepard's story: The Laramie Project (based on the play of the same name), The Matthew Shepard Story and Anatomy of a Hate Crime. The Laramie Project and The Matthew Shepard Story both won numerous awards. Shepard can also be seen in the documentary Dear Jesse in a brief interview, released to the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on October 10, 2 days before he died.[38]
  • Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, wrote to Judy Shepard expressing her sympathy and her belief that civil rights include gay and lesbian rights.
  • Radio DJ Howard Stern invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church on to The Howard Stern Show. The show's cast and callers proceeded to insult the church's members. The group has appeared on the show several times since; each time Stern makes numerous comments denouncing the group and its cause.[39]
  • Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote a song about the death of Matthew Shepard entitled "American Triangle" which is included on John's 2001 album "Songs From the West Coast"
  • Tori Amos has dedicated her song "Merman" (1999) to Matthew Shepard, a tender lullaby that can be found on the compilation album No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees.
  • Metal band Trivium has written a song on their latest album The Crusade which is about the story of Matthew Shepard and what happened that night.
  • Melissa Etheridge wrote a song about Matthew called 'Scarecrow' on her 'Breakdown' album
  • New Jersey band Thursday wrote a song called 'M. Shepard', featuring on their album, War All the Time.

The (lack of) media coverage of the Jesse Dirkhising and Gary Trzaska cases has been compared[40][41] to Shepard's as an illustration of politically correct media bias.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Matthew Shepard Foundation webpage.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Cart, Julie. "Killer of Gay Student Is Spared Death Penalty; Courts: Matthew Shepard's father says life in prison shows 'mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.'", Los Angeles Times, 1999-11-05, p. A1. 
  3. Killer: Shepard Didn't Make Advances. Retrieved on 2007-12-07.
  4. University of Wyoming Matthew Shepard Resource Site. University of Wyoming. Retrieved on 2006-11-01.
  5. "Murder charges planned in beating death of gay student", CNN, 1998-10-12. Retrieved on 2006-11-01. 
  6. Lacayo, Richard. "The New Gay Struggle", Time Magazine, 1998-10-26. Retrieved on 2006-11-01. 
  7. "Beaten gay student dies; murder charges planned", CNN, 1998-10-12. Retrieved on 2007-01-14. 
  8. "Matthew Shepard Medical Update", PVHS, 1998-10-12. Retrieved on 2007-01-14. 
  9. New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder (2004-11-26). Retrieved on 2006-05-15.
  10. CNN Press Release
  11. Tuma, Clara, and The Associated Press. "Henderson pleads guilty to felony murder in Matthew Shepard case", Court TV, April 5, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-04-06. 
  12. The Daily Camera:Matthew Shepard Murder. Retrieved on 2006-04-06.
  13. Black, Robert W.. "Girlfriend: McKinney told of killing", The Daily Camera, 1999-10-29. Retrieved on 2006-04-06. 
  14. Wyoming News
  15. New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder (2004-11-26). Retrieved on 2006-05-15.
  16. 16.0 16.1 New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder (2004-11-26). Retrieved on 2006-05-15.
  17. "Rewriting the Motives Behind Matthew Shepard’s Murder", [1], 2004-12-08. Retrieved on 2007-05-06. 
  18. New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder.
  19. Former police chief angry about 20/20 (2004-11-26). Retrieved on 2007-05-15.
  20. Colby College. "Mother of Hate-Crime Victim to Speak at Colby", 2006-03-07. Retrieved on 2006-04-06.  Press release.
  21. "Open phones", Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, 1998-10-12. Retrieved on 2006-04-06.  "Denounced nationwide as a hate crime" at 1:40 elapsed time.
  22. Investigative Programs: Civil Rights: Hate Crimes. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved on 2006-04-06.
  23. Map of State Statutes. Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved on 2006-04-06.
  24. Blanchard, Robert O.. "The "Hate State" Myth", Reason, May 1999. Retrieved on 2006-04-06. 
  25. Barrett, Ted, and The Associated Press. "President Clinton urges Congress to pass hate crimes bill: GOP aides predict legislation will pass House, but will not become law", CNN, 2000-09-13. Retrieved on 2006-04-07. 
  26. Office of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. "House Democrats Condemn GOP Rejection of Hate Crimes Legislation", 2004-10-07. Retrieved on 2006-04-07.  Press release.
  27. Simon, R. Bush threatens to veto expansion of hate-crime law, Los Angeles Times, 2007-05-03. Retrieved on 2007-05-03.
  28. Stout, D. House Votes to Expand Hate Crime Protection, New York Times, 2007-05-03. Retrieved 2007-05-03.
  29. Caving in on Hate Crimes, New York Times, 2007-12-10. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
  30. 30.0 30.1 "Suspect pleads guilty in beating death of gay college student", CNN, 1999-04-05. Retrieved on 2007-01-18. 
  31. 31.0 31.1 The Whole World Was Watching. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
  32. Matthew Shepard Online Resources - Hate Speech - Rev. Fred Phelps. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
  33. Sink, Mindy. "Wyoming: Council Votes To Move Ten Commandments From Park", The New York Times, 2003-10-30. Retrieved on 2006-04-06. 
  34. Kelly, David. "The Nation; Intolerance Chiseled in Stone Hits City Hard; Casper, Wyo., faces the prospect of having to allow a monument that condemns gay murder victim Matthew Shepard", Los Angeles Times, 2003-10-12, p. A20. 
  35. godhatesfags .com/main/shepard_monument.html Monument dedicated to Matthew Shepard's Entry Into Hell, which WBC intends to erect in Casper City Park as a solemn Memorial that God Hates Fags & Fag-Enablers. Westboro Baptist Church. Retrieved on 2006-04-06. Page includes picture of proposed monument.
  36. Burke, Brendan. "Phelps seeks anti-gay marker", Casper Star-Tribune, 2003-10-03. Retrieved on 2006-04-06. 
  37. Angel Protest
  38. IMDB Dear Jesse Release Info
  39. Stewart, Jenny. Howard Stern's impact on gay community. PlanetOut Inc. Retrieved on 2008-03-11.
  40. Dougherty, Jon. Guilty verdict in Dirkhising case. Retrieved on 2008-05-29. “It was big news in Northwest Arkansas, but the story of Jesse Dirkhising hasn't made a ripple in the national news. I wonder why? I wonder if it's because the victim is not a part of some politically protected sub-group, a special class deserving of extra government privileges? I wonder if it is because the suspects are, indeed, members of such a group.”
  41. Farah, Elizabeth. Murder by any other name. Retrieved on 2008-05-29. “They heard Gary was a homosexual. The problem? Gary wasn't killed because of his sexual preference. White victim, black killers – non-starter.”

Further reading

Chronological order of publication (oldest first)

  • Loffreda, Beth (2000). Losing Matt Shepard: life and politics in the aftermath of anti-gay murder. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11859-7. 
  • Fondakowski, Leigh; Kaufman, Moises (2001). The Laramie project. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-375-72719-1. 
  • Garceau, Dee; Basso, Matthew; McCall, Laura (2001). Across the Great Divide: cultures of manhood in the American West. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92471-5. 
  • Swigonski, Mary E. ;Mama, Robin S.;Ward, Kelly (2001). From Hate Crimes to Human Rights: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard. New York: Routledge. ISBN 1-56023-256-0. 
  • Campbell, Shannon; Laura Castaneda (2005). News and Sexuality: Media Portraits of Diversity. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-4129-0998-8. 
  • Patrick Hinds; Romaine Patterson (2005). The Whole World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard. Advocate Books. ISBN 1-55583-901-0. 

External links

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