Matthew Shepard

This article is about the murder victim. For the Detroit, Michigan based sports reporter, see Matt Shepard (sportscaster).
Matthew Shepard
Born Matthew Wayne Shepard
(1976-12-01)December 1, 1976
Casper, Wyoming, U.S.
Died October 12, 1998(1998-10-12) (aged 21)
Fort Collins, Colorado, U.S.
Cause of death Homicide
Alma mater University of Wyoming
Parent(s) Dennis Shepard
Judy Shepard

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. 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.[1] 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.[2] Following her son's murder, Matthew's mother Judy Shepard became a prominent LGBT rights activist and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Shepard's death inspired notable films, novels, plays, songs, and other works.


Shepard was born in 1976 in Casper, Wyoming, the first of two sons born to Judy (née Peck) and Dennis Shepard. His younger brother, Logan, was born in 1981. The two siblings had a close relationship.[3] Matthew attended Crest Hill Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High School, and Natrona County High School for his freshman through junior years. As a child, he was "friendly with all his classmates," but targeted for teasing due to his small stature and lack of athleticism.[3] He developed an early interest in politics.[3] Saudi Aramco hired his father in the summer of 1994, and Shepard's parents subsequently resided at the Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran. During that time, Shepard attended the American School in Switzerland (TASIS),[4] from which he graduated in May 1995. There, he participated in theater and took German and Italian courses. He then attended Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming, before settling in Denver, Colorado. Shepard became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie with a minor in languages,[3] and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.[1]

He was described by his father as "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who 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."[5] Michele Josue, who had been a friend of Shepard's and later created a documentary about him, Matt Shepard is A Friend of Mine, described him as "a tenderhearted and kind person."[6] In February 1995, during a high school trip to Morocco, Shepard was beaten and raped, causing him to experience depression and panic attacks, according to his mother. One of Shepard's friends feared that his depression had driven him to become involved with drugs during his time in college.[7] Multiple times, Shepard was hospitalized due to his clinical depression and suicidal ideation.[3]


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.[8][9] It was decided that McKinney and Henderson would give Shepard a ride home.[10][11] 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.[12][13] Both of their girlfriends testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.[14][15] 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.[16] 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.[17] Henderson and McKinney later tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them and help them dispose of evidence.[18]

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.[19] Reggie Fluty, the first police officer on the scene, found Shepard alive but covered in blood. The medical gloves issued by the Albany County Sheriff's Department were faulty, and Fluty's supply ran out. She decided to use her bare hands to clear an airway in Shepard's bloody mouth. A day later, she was informed that Shepard was HIV positive, and she may have been exposed due to cuts on her hands. After taking an AZT regimen for several months, she proved not to have been infected.[20] Judy Shepard later wrote she learned of her son's HIV status during his stay at the hospital following the attack.[21]

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.[22][23][24]

Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado.[25][26][27][28] He was 21 years old.[8]

Arrests and trial

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.[27] 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.[29] Detective Ben Fritzen testified that Price stated McKinney told her the violence against Shepard was triggered by how McKinney "[felt] about gays".[29]

In December 1998, Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first degree murder.[30]

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.[30]

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".[10][31] Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by "greed and violence", rather than by Shepard's sexual orientation.[32] 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.[17]

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.[33] Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and were later transferred to other prisons because of overcrowding.[34]

Price pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer following her testimony at McKinney's trial.[35]

In 2004, Price said she had lied to police about McKinney having been provoked by an unwanted sexual advance, telling TV journalist Elizabeth Vargas, "I don't think it was a hate crime at all."[17][36] Fritzen told an interviewer "Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide..."[37]

Hate crime legislation

President Obama with Louvon Harris, Betty Byrd Boatner, and Judy Shepard
President Barack Obama greets Louvon Harris, left, Betty Byrd Boatner, right, both sisters of James Byrd, Jr., and Judy Shepard at a reception commemorating the enactment of the legislation

During coverage of the incident, requests for new legislation addressing hate crimes gained currency.[38][39] Under then United States federal law[40] and Wyoming state law,[41] crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes.

Within hours of Shepard being discovered tied to the fence, Shepard's friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout began to contact media organizations claiming Shepard had been assaulted because he was gay. According to prosecutor Cal Rerucha, "They were calling the County Attorney's office, they were calling the media and indicating Matthew Shepard is gay and we don't want the fact that he is gay to go unnoticed."[17] Tina Labrie, a close friend of Shepard's, said "[Boulden and Trout] wanted to make [Matt] a poster child or something for their cause".[42] Boulden linked the attack to the absence of a Wyoming criminal statute providing for a hate crimes charge.[43]

In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, however the measure failed on a 30–30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.[44]

At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include homosexual individuals, women, and people with disabilities.[45] The United States House of Representatives rejected these efforts in 1999.

In September 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation; however it was stripped out in conference committee.[46]

On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Shepard's parents attended the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007[47] (S. 1105), however then-President George W. Bush indicated he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk.[48] The Democratic leadership dropped the amendment in response to opposition from conservative groups and Bush, and because the measure was attached to a defense bill there was a lack of support from antiwar Democrats.[49]

On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, although it failed to pass. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said she was "still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed". Pelosi planned to get the bill passed in early 2008[50] although she did not succeed. Following his election as President, Barack Obama stated that he was committed to passing the Act.[51]

The U.S. House of Representatives debated expansion of hate crimes legislation on April 29, 2009. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the "hate crime" labeling of Shepard's murder a "hoax".[52] Foxx later called her comments "a poor choice of words".[53]

The House passed the act, designated H.R. 1913, by a vote of 249 to 175.[54] Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition introduced the bill in the Senate on April 28;[55] it had 43 cosponsors as of June 17, 2009. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63–28 on July 15, 2009.[56]

On October 22, 2009, the Senate passed the act by a vote of 68–29.[57] President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.[58][59]

Public reaction and aftermath

Funeral protests

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, received national attention for picketing Shepard's funeral with signs bearing homophobic slogans.[60]

Members of the church also mounted anti-gay protests at the trials of McKinney and Henderson. In response, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard's, organized a group which assembled in a circle around the Westboro Baptist Church protesters, wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protesters. Police had to create a human barrier between the two groups.[61] Angel Action was founded by Patterson in April 1999.[61][62]

Alternative theories

The murder continued to attract public attention and media coverage long after the trial was over. In 2004, the ABC News news program 20/20 aired a report quoting claims by McKinney, Henderson, and Kristen Price, the prosecutor and a lead investigator, that the murder had not been motivated by Shepard's sexuality but rather was primarily a drug-related robbery that had turned violent.[17]

Gay advocacy organizations charged that the 20/20 report, which featured interviews with McKinney and Henderson, was sensational, misleading, and downplayed or ignored evidence of homophobia as a motivation for the crime.[63][64][65][66]

By contrast, in an essay in LGBT publication The Advocate, Aaron Hicklin wrote that after years of investigation the show's producer, gay writer Stephen Jimenez, interviewed over 100 people and had "amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard's sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus had led us to believe."[67]

Dave O'Malley, the Laramie police commander over the investigations division at the time of Shepard's murder,[68] said "I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they had hatred towards him for being gay." The prosecutor in the case, however, stated there was ample evidence that drugs were at least a factor in the murder[69] and Officer Waters told British journalist Julie Bindel "I believe to this day that McKinney and Henderson were trying to find Matthew’s house so they could steal his drugs. It was fairly well known in the Laramie community that McKinney wouldn’t be one that was striking out of a sense of homophobia."[43] Homicide detective Ben Fritzen, who had interviewed Price, said that those "closely involved with investigating the case.... Initially agreed [this wasn't a hate crime but] as time went on, some became politically involved".[37]

In September 2013, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard by Stephen Jimenez, the producer of the 2004 20/20 segment, was published. The book revived and expanded upon Jimenez's claims that Shepard's murder was at least partly drug-related, specifically to Shepard's being a "major" methamphetamine dealer, and that, contrary to the previously generally accepted version of events, his sexual orientation was not a major motive for the crime.[70] According to Jimenez, Shepard and the killer who inflicted the injuries (McKinney) had been occasional sexual partners.[71][72]

Culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg said the book was poorly sourced "by not distinguishing which quotations are manufactured from recollections, which are paraphrases recounted by sources, and which were spoken directly to [Jimenez]."[70] "[I]n a common bit of right-wing positioning meant to blunt any criticism of his theories as politically correct, Jimenez sets himself up as a victim," wrote Rosenberg.[70]

Some police officials interviewed after Jimenez's book's publication disputed certain claims made in the book while others praised it. O'Malley noted Shepard's slight build and said the idea that Shepard was "a methamphetamine kingpin is almost humorous. Someone that would buy into that certainly would believe almost anything they read." Rob Debree, lead sheriff's investigator at the time, said the book contains "factual errors and lies", and deemed Jimenez's claim that Shepard was a drug dealer "truly laughable".[68] Shepard's former lover and long-term friend, Ted Henson, nonetheless said the book is “nothing more than the truth”[43] and Cal Rerucha, who prosecuted the case, stated that Jimenez was one of the only people "that really looked through the files" of the case. He called the book "fair" saying Shepard's friends "were on a mission" to make the crime out as a hate crime. Rerucha also disputed Debree's assertion that Jimenez's claim that someone had shot through Rerucha's window was a lie. Rerucha said that someone had indeed shot through his window.[68]


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.

Gay rights activist John Stoltenberg has said presenting Shepard as a gay-bashing victim is to present 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 young men in our community who are sold for sex, ravaged by drugs, and generally exploited.”[43]

The Meaning of Matthew

The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed is a 2009 biographical book by Judy Shepard about her son Matthew Shepard. Judy Shepard speaks about her loss, her family memories of Matthew, and the tragic event that changed the Shepards' lives and America. The Meaning of Matthew follows the Shepard family in the days immediately after the crime to see their incapacitated son, kept alive by life support machines; how the Shepards learned of the huge public response, the candlelit vigils and memorial services for their child; their struggles to navigate the legal system.[73]

Numerous works have been inspired by Matthew Shepard's life, death, trial, and its aftermath, including documentary and narrative films and television shows, stage plays, and musical and written works. Additionally, openly gay NBA player Jason Collins wore the jersey number "98" in honor of Shepard during the 2012–13 season with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards.[74] After Collins joined the Brooklyn Nets, in 2014, NBA marketing reported high interest in his "98" jersey,[75] and high sales once it became available for purchase.[76][77]

See also


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Further reading

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