"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Thursday, October 6, 2016

After 18 years, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has never been more necessary and has never reached more people in need

Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard
Eighteen years ago today, Matthew stopped into the Fireside Bar in Laramie, Wyoming, to take a break from his studies at home. By the following morning, a family, and a nation, was changed forever by an act of senseless violence.

We continue to grieve and share Matt’s story with the world, and every October we are reminded of the strength we have because of you, our supporters. Even after 18 years, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, through its programs and partnerships, has never been more necessary and has never reached more people in need than it does today. With each passing year, we honor Matt by continuing to achieve monumental steps toward true equality, and we honor you for making it possible. We remember Matt and all those who have suffered discrimination, harm and loss at the hands of bigotry and hatred, and we continue our work to prevent others from experiencing a similar fate. - The Matthew Shepard Foundation


Matthew Wayne "Matt" Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was an American student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6, 1998. He died six days later at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 12, from severe head injuries.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly after the attack and charged with murder following Shepard's death. Significant media coverage was given to what role Shepard's sexual orientation played in the killing. During McKinney's pretrial and trial, testimony was given that the pair had pretended to be gay to gain Shepard's trust and rob him. 

McKinney's prosecutor argued the murder was premeditated and driven by greed, while McKinney's defense counsel argued that McKinney had only intended to rob Shepard, but had killed him in a rage when Shepard made a sexual advance. McKinney's girlfriend told police that he had been motivated by anti-gay sentiment, but later recanted her statement, saying that she had lied because she thought it would help him. 

Both McKinney and Henderson were convicted of the murder and each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Shepard's murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. 

In October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly the "Matthew Shepard Act" or "Shepard/Byrd Act" for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law. 

Following her son's murder, Matthew's mother Judy Shepard became a prominent LGBT rights activist and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation.


On the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard met Aaron McKinney (then 22), and Russell Henderson (then 21), at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming.

It was decided that McKinney and Henderson would give Shepard a ride home. McKinney and Henderson subsequently drove the car to a remote, rural area, and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tie him to a fence, and leave him to die. Media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol-whipping and his fractured skull. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears.

Both of their girlfriends testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.

According to their court testimony, McKinney and Henderson discovered Shepard's address and intended to steal from his home as well.

After the attack Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson returned to town and McKinney picked a fight with two Hispanic youths, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara, leading to head wounds for both Morales and McKinney.

Police officer Flint Waters arrived at the scene, apprehended Henderson, and soon found the bloody gun and Shepard's shoes and credit card in McKinney's truck.

The fence where Matt Shepard was found by a passing cyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow.
The fence where Matt Shepard was found by a passing cyclist who initially
mistook him for a scarecrow. Shepard never regained consciousness.
Henderson and McKinney later tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them and help them dispose of evidence.

Still tied to the fence, Shepard, who was in a coma, was discovered 18 hours after the attack by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. Reggie Fluty, the first police officer on the scene, found Shepard alive but covered in blood. 

Shepard had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brainstem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate his heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. 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. While he lay in intensive care, and in the days following the attack, candlelight vigils were held around the world.

Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was 21 years old.

Arrests and trial

Russell Henderson (L) and Aaron McKinney (R)
Russell Henderson (L) and Aaron McKinney (R)
McKinney and Henderson were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery.

Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, were charged with being accessories after the fact. After Shepard's death, the charges were changed from attempted murder to first degree murder.

At McKinney's November 1998 pretrial hearing, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that McKinney had stated in an interview on October 9 that he and Henderson had identified Shepard as a robbery target and pretended to be gay to lure him out to their truck, and that McKinney had attacked Shepard after Shepard put his hand on McKinney's knee.

Detective Ben Fritzen testified that Price stated McKinney told her the violence against Shepard was triggered by how McKinney "[felt] about gays".

In December 1998, Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first degree murder.

Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping on April 5, 1999 and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. At Henderson's sentencing, his lawyer argued that Shepard had not been targeted because he was gay.

At McKinney's trial in October and November 1999, the prosecutor, Cal Rerucha, alleged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay to gain Shepard's trust. 

Price, McKinney's girlfriend, testified that Henderson and McKinney had "pretended they were gay to get [Shepard] in the truck and rob him". Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by "greed and violence", rather than by Shepard's sexual orientation. 

McKinney's lawyer attempted to put forward a gay panic defense, arguing that McKinney was driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Shepard. This defense was rejected by the judge. McKinney's lawyer stated that the two men wanted to rob Shepard but never intended to kill him.

The jury found McKinney guilty of felony murder and not guilty of premeditated murder. As they began to deliberate on the death penalty, Shepard's parents brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney's receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. 

Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and were later transferred to other prisons because of overcrowding.

In the years following Shepard's death, his mother Judy Shepard has become a well-known advocate for LGBT rights, particularly issues relating to gay youth. She was a main force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which she and her husband Dennis founded in December 1998.

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