Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked and tortured by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on October 6th, 1998. His attackers tied him to a fence, and he died in a hospital a few days later. His death set off a nationwide debate about hate crimes and homophobia that led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009).
Matt Shepard was a restless kid that moved a lot and tried several schools. He was struggling with depression and post traumatic stress disorder and he told his parents he was unhappy, but they were in Saudi Arabia, so there wasn't a lot they could do to help him right away. He eventually felt comfortable enough to tell his family that he was gay and he was thrilled to find out that nothing had changed, they loved him just the same. On October 8th, 1998, Matt's family received a call from a Dr. stating their son had sustained injuries and he most likely wouldn't survive. Matt had been attacked by Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson. They beat him until he was unconscious, tied him to a fence, and left him.
After the attackers left Matt, they stopped at the intersection of Seventh and Harney Streets, where they encountered Jeremy Herrera and Emiliano Morales, and they were both out vandalizing cars. They all started cussing at each other and Aaron pulled out his pistol and hit Emiliano on the head. When Jeremy saw what happened to his friend, he pulled out a club and struck Aaron in the head. At 12:43 AM officers received a vandalism call and saw Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson jumping into their truck. The officer saw that they both had blood on them and they took off running. They were able to catch Russell after a few minutes and he claimed that they were on their way to a party and got jumped. Then he remembered that people from Fireside bar had seen him and he says that they had a third friend who disappeared and they were out looking for him so they could go to a party. Once the officer discovered the bloody gun in the truck, he knew something major was going on.
Russell's girlfriend, 20 year old Chastity Pasley was a student at the University of Wyoming and she assisted in the Student Union Building which meant she would have been part of the Gay Awareness Week. When she picked Russell up from the hospital, he said that he and Aaron had beaten up a gay guy and left him by Wal-Mart. She knew the location and that someone had been harmed and she did nothing. It was confirmed later to her that the guy they “roughed up” was left in a field. She still did nothing. They drove to Aaron's apartment and put their alibi together, so they would all have the same story for the police. Here's their brilliant story. Russell and Aaron were going to say someone stole their truck and they were taking Matthew to a party, but they got jumped.
Aaron's girlfriend was not so keen on keeping a secret for him like Russell's had. He was dating Kristen Price and they had a son. Aaron arrived home covered in blood and started washing a wallet and told her Kristen to turn off the lights and TV. He said they may have killed a gay guy and she called the police because she didn't want to get in trouble or lose her child.
When Matt had finally arrived at Ivinson Memorial Hospital, he wasn't the only patient in the emergency room that was suffering from head trauma. His attacker, Aaron McKinney was also there being treated by the same Dr. Cantway AND he had also treated Emiliano Morales for a head injury that night which is one of the guys that was out vandalizing cars. Both Matt and Aaron were sent in separate ambulances to Fort Collins and they were treated by the same neurosurgeon. Matt and his murderer were treated simultaneously, in two separate hospitals, by the same exact doctors and no one knew there was a connection. It's unreal.
The officer that originally came on the scene was named Reggie and she told the family something truly remarkable. She said that she was running towards the fence to get to Matt and as she got closer, she saw a large doe lying near him, as if the deer had been watching over him all night. The doe took off running once she got too close, but it gave everyone a small ounce of comfort to know that he wasn't completely alone that night.
On the day of Matt's funeral, a local radio station broadcast the service so people all over could listen. In preparation of the service, police had to bring bomb sniffing dogs to the churches and they planned to have a SWAT team across from the church and the police asked that the family wear bulletproof vests because protests were beginning. Dennis and Judy had to wear bulletproof vests as they gave a speech to the crowd gathered outside Casper City Hall. Volunteers showed up to clean the church so it would look immaculate and beautiful for the service. Business in Casper put up posters in their windows that had a yellow ribbon with green circles. Yellow for tolerance and green for peace. People were taking a stand and demanding change. They were standing up against hatred and violence.
After news broke that Matt had died, candlelight vigils were being held in cities around the world. Popular talk show host Ellen Degeneres was deeply upset when she heard about the attack on Matt and this was about a year after she had publicly announced that she was gay. She said, “I went to the steps of Washington and spoke out and basically in tears was saying, this is why I did what I did, to hope that this would change the world. I mean that was stupid and naive of me to think that I could actually make that kind of impact in the world by just coming out.” It's estimated that 9,000 people gathered to protest and mourn and the crowd was screaming Ellen's name. She grabbed the microphone and as read her speech as tears rolled down her cheeks. It's long, but worth it. I'm also cutting three words because I don't think they're useful to say and I'll tell you where they are. Also, keep in mind, this was right after Ellen got fired from her TV show for coming out, so that's what she's referencing in the first line.
“Well, just when they'd thought I'd shut up.
I am so pissed off. I can't stop crying. You know, I know we all feel the same way and I'm here. He's got these two close friends here, and I don't even know him. I'm thinking this is really selfish of me. I mean, pull yourself together.
It just hit me why I am so devastated by it. It's because this is what I was trying to stop. This is exactly why I did what I did. Boy, you see them come out in forces when they think a lesbian is going to be on television. The preachers come out then, but something like this happens. Where are they?
Anyway, everybody has already said everything. You are hearing the same thing over and over again. I really didn't know what I was going to say. I just started writing on the plane, and thought it was pretty good. Then Ann read what she wrote and I was going to throw it away. But I wrote it so I'm going to say it. It is basically the same thing over and over.
I've been trying to figure out how to put into words what I want to say. My thoughts are that: this world we live in is filled with hate and darkness. Matthew Shepard was not the first hate crime, it happens every day. There are 2,500 reported this year. Many go unreported because most gays and lesbians are still in the closet for fear of this exact reason.
When three white men dragged James Byrd Jr behind the truck and killed him just because he was black, I felt the same way. I don't see full-paged ads saying, Stop the hate! Stop the violence! These same evil, idiotic so-called God-loving people who use the Bible to justify their hate, I'm sure still feel deep down that blacks aren't equal to whites because the Bible is also used to justify slavery.
It took one man, one white man, Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves. He wasn't very popular for doing it, but he knew it was the right thing to do. When Hitler was killed all the Jews, the church was silent. They did nothing. It was a few good Germans who helped hide the Jews.
Right now, homosexuals are the target of, at the very least, discrimination—at the very worst hate and violence. So I am begging heterosexuals to see this as a wakeup call to help us end the hate. Please raise your children with love and non-judgement. Tell them that everyone has the right to love who they want to love. It shouldn't threaten you or who you are. Explain that is is not ok to call someone (this is where I'm removing 3 derogatory words) We shouldn't be asked to change who we are.
The millions of dollars the religious rights spend on print ads and TV ads could be spent helping to change the homeless or help change men who abuse women.
Matthew Shepard wasn't hurting anyone. He was a good person, a gentle soul who was tortured to death. He is with God now, who I am sure is crying.
My torture goes on every time I think of what those boys did to him just because he was gay. When will we learn? Just because someone is black, just because someone is Jewish, just because someone is gay.
This is a war. We need your help. Please search your hearts. Think for yourselves. Be on the right side, the side of love and compassion.
Thank you very much.”
The Shepard family had seen a lot of tragedy recently, but they weren't done. Dennis's 81 year old uncle passed away at Matt's service. He had a heart attack in the church's kitchen as he was on his way in. Dennis and Judy were shielded from this until after their son's service was over, but they had to attend a service for him just 3 days after Matt's. Three weeks later, Dennis's father, Harry Shepard passed away from undiagnosed Leukemia.
After all the funerals, the family was trying to prepare themselves for a murder trial. They received word that Russell Henderson wanted to plea-bargain. He was willing to plead guilty and testify against Aaron McKinney in exchange for two life sentences. The family did believe that Russell was not the one that murdered their son, but he did tie him to the fence and he certainly didn't help him. They realized they wouldn't have to go through a trial and would know he was getting the max sentence, so it really made sense. A so called church decided to do a demonstration outside on the day of sentencing and instead of preaching love and unity, they made posters that are horrifying and disgusting and they said awful things about Matt. A good friend of Matt's showed up with a group of people and they called themselves Angel Action. They didn't fight back with words. The took white sheets and PVC pipe and created angel costumes with giant wings. The angels circled the courthouse and blocked the protesters view and made sure no one inside could see the hateful messages. As the group surrounded the area, Matt's friend, Romaine read her statement:
Before you stands a band of angels. We come from a number of backgrounds: We don't represent any one group; any one religion, sex, race, age, or sexual orientation. They are merely a group of people who joined with me because they believe in honesty and truth. So often we find that people are willing to make a lot of noise about what they believe to be true. We don't believe that we have to say anything at all. Aside from this brief explanatory statement. Our actions will speak for themselves. Just one look and the truth is plainly clear. Our focus is to bring forth a message of peace and love. Hatred is running rampant through our everyday lives. But as a group, we choose to lift ourselves above the hatred. We feel, as so many others do, that love and compassion for our community and our humanity are the answers that so many people are desperately searching for. And so we bring forth a message from God, if you will: Love, respect, and compassion for everyone is why we are here today. I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate filled. As a young person, I feel it necessary to show the great nation that we live in that there doesn't need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world. And that loving one another doesn't mean that we have to compromise our beliefs; it simply means that we choose to be compassionate and respectful of others.”
Romaine and her angels used compassion and creativity that day. Their work inspired thousands of people to do the same thing and you can download a do-it-yourself angel kit online.
Here's the victim statement Judy read in court. “I want to thank the court for this opportunity to talk about Matt. I feel that I must try to share with you what Matt's life and death have meant to us. It is important that he be revealed to you as a loving, vibrant, kind young man. You need to see him as we do to try and understand our loss. However, I am not sure we really understand it yet ourselves.”
I love Matt more than I can express in this statement. There aren't enough words to describe how much I love him. We shared so much. Late night talks, trying to solve the problem of surviving in this world as we saw them, politics, love of good movies and bad, theater, books, good food, and conversation. He was my son, my firstborn and more. He was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be-and, ultimately, how hurtful. I will never understand why anyone would want to hurt Matt...to act with such cruelty, such disregard for another human being.”
“What would our lives be like now, without Matt? Logan had planned to attend the University of Wyoming. He and Matt were going to share an apartment, both looking forward to the time they would spend together, getting to know each other once again. That hope was killed. All our hopes for Matt were killed. All the hopes and dreams that were Matt's were killed for twenty dollars and some twisted reason known only to his killers....
How have our lives changed?
I can't answer that yet. I know personally that there is a hole in my life. I will never experience Matt's laugh, his wonderful hugs, his stories, hear about his ambitions for the future.”
“There are days when I think I can't go on. Then I remember Logan and Dennis, our extended families, and our wonderful friends, new and old. I know their love and support will sustain me. I know Matt would be very disappointed in me if I gave up. He would disappointed in us all if we gave up.”
During sentencing, Judge Donnell said, “Mr. Henderson, you drove the vehicle that took Matthew Shepard to his death. You bound him to that fence in order that he might be more savagely beaten and in order that he might be more savagely beaten and in order that he might not escape to tell his tale. You left him out there for eighteen hours, knowing full well that he was there. Perhaps having an opportunity to save his life, and you did nothing. Mr. Henderson, this court does not believe that you really feel any remorse for your part in this matter. And I wonder whether you fully realize the gravity of what you've done.:
“The court finds it appropriate, therefore, that sentence be ordered as followed: As to count three, that being felony murder with robbery, you are to serve a term of imprisonment for the term of your natural life. On count one, kidnapping, that you serve a period of imprisonment for the term of your natural life. Sentence for count one to run consecutive to sentencing for count three.”
On October 11th, almost a year after his murder, more than 600 people gathered in Laramie for a candlelight vigil in Matt's honor and this was followed by a Peter, Paul, and Mary tribute concert. Two young men hiked an 80 mile journey to put 150 bears on the fence that Matthew was tied to. Each bear represented a different hate-crime victim.
When it came to Aaron McKinney's case, they talked about how he experienced traumatic sexual experiences as a child. So, they argued that when Matt allegedly made a sexual advance towards Aaron, he was embarrassed and had an out of body experience when he murdered him. They were using the gay panic defense, but the judge ruled against this tactic. The jury reached a decision after only 10 hours of deliberation. When it came to premeditated murder, the jury voted eleven to one in favor of it, so Aaron was not getting a first degree murder verdict. A few hours later, Matt's parents were told that Aaron wanted to make a deal. He agreed to never appeal and to never talk to the press or profit from the case in exchange for two consecutive life sentences instead of the death penalty. This would mean that the family would never have to worry about Aaron or Russell ever getting out and they could avoid the sentencing phase. They took the deal.
Matt's father, Dennis made a speech, it's quite long, but I have a few pieces: “I would like to begin my statement by addressing the jury. Ladies and gentlemen, a terrible crime was committed in Laramie thirteen months ago. Because of that crime, the reputation of the city of Laramie, the University of Wyoming, and the state of Wyoming because synonymous with gay bashing, hate crimes, and brutality. While some of this reputation may be deserved, it was blown out of proportion by our friends in the media. Yesterday you, the jury, showed the world that Wyoming and the city of Laramie will not tolerate hate crimes. Yes, this was a hate crime, pure and simple, with the added ingredient of robbery. My son Matthew paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States, and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination, and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day. Yesterday's decision by you showed true courage and made a statement.
That statement is that Wyoming is the Equality State; that Wyoming will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation; that violence is not the solution. Ladies and gentlemen, you have the respect and admiration of Matthew's family and friends and of countless strangers around the world. Be proud of what you have accomplished. You may have prevented another family from losing a son or daughter.
Your Honor, I would also like to thank you for the dignity and grace with which this trial was conducted. Repeated attempts to distract the court from the true purpose of this trial failed because of your attentiveness, knowledge, and willingness to take a stand and make a new law in the area of sexual orientation and the gay panic defense. By doing so you have emphasized that Matthew was a human being with all the rights and responsibilities and protections of any citizen of Wyoming.
My son Matthew did not look like a winner. After all, he was small for his age, weighing, at most, 110 pounds, and standing only five feet two inches tall. He was rather uncoordinated and wore braces from the age of thirteen until the day he died. However, in his all too brief life, he proved that he was a winner. My son-a gentle, caring soul, proved that he was as tough as, if not tougher than, anyone I have ever heard of or known. On October 6th, 1998, my son tried to show the world that he could win again. On October 12th, 1998, my firstborn son, and my hero, lost. On October 12th, my firstborn son and my hero, died fifty days before his 22nd birthday. He died quietly, surrounded by family and friends, with his mother and brother holding his hand. All that I have now are the memories.”
After Matt was attacked, the family received thousand of cards and letters and there was almost $90k in donations because people were trying to help pay Matt's hospital bills. The family wanted to ensure that his legacy was bigger than his murder. On December 1st, 1998, which would have been his 22nd birthday, the Matthew Shepard Foundation was started. Judy wanted to be fully informed on issues before she started fighting back and she met with a group that could educate her on hate-crime laws. The idea behind the laws was that someone who committed a crime and was motivated by the victim's perceived difference: race, religion, sexual orientation, or physical handicap, would face harsher penalties.
Random acts of violence against others is always tragic, but violent crimes based on prejudice have a much stronger impact because the motive is to terrorize an entire community. Hate crimes are more violent because the attacker is trying to send a message of intolerance. A federal hate-crimes law had been in place for almost 30 years before Matt was killed, but it didn't include sexual orientation protection. After a lot of research, the family settled on including the following three areas of focus in the foundation:
-Erase Hate: Education society about all aspects of hate. Whether it's based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
-Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equality: This is the work that would have meant the most to Matt and includes supporting groups like the Human Rights Campaign in their fight for marriage equality, for employment nondiscrimination laws, and for an end to the military's ban on openly gay service members
-Put Children First: The goal is to educate the public on the needs of the gay and lesbian youth.
Judy Shepard and other speakers go to schools, community groups and workplaces to encourage straight allies to join the LGBT movement.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate-crimes Prevention Act of 2009 was designed to enhance penalties in hate crimes also involving “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”
I'll end with a quote from the Matthew Shepard Foundation:
“The life and death of Matthew Shepard changed the way we talk about, and deal with, hate in America. Since his death, Matt's legacy has challenged and inspired millions of individuals to erase hate in all its forms. Although Matt's life was short, his story continues to have a great impact on young and old alike. His legacy lives on in thousands of people who actively fight to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance.”