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|“||We’re not gay and you’re getting jacked.||„|
|~ McKinney to Shepard.|
Aaron McKinney (then 22 years old) and Russell Henderson (then 21 years old) are the two young men responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and brutal murder of 21-year old college student Matthew Shepard on October 12, 1998. McKinney and Henderson met Shepard at a bar in Laramie, Wyoming and convinced him to go with them. Shortly afterwards, they took Shepard to a field, tied him to a fence post, and proceeded to sadistically torture him by pistol-whipping him in the head multiple times and burning him with cigarettes. Once they were done, they set Shepard on fire and left him tied to the fence post to die. Sheoard would succumb to his wounds in the hospital five days later.
Henderson and McKinney were arrested soon afterwards and convicted of first-degree murder. Both of them received two consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole. They both remain incarcerated and are currently imprisoned at the Wyoming State Penitentiary.
The murder of Matthew Shepard was the first homophobic hate crime to receive national attention, later being dramatized in the stage play The Laramie Project. It later served as a cause célèbre for the implementation of hate crime legislation on the national level. Such legislation would come to fruition in 2010 when the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard was approached by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie; all three men were in their early 20s. McKinney and Henderson decided to give Shepard a ride home.
They subsequently drove to a remote, rural area, and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tie him to a fence, set him afire and left him to die. Many media reports contained the graphic account of the pistol-whipping and his fractured skull. Reports described how Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially cleansed by his tears.
The assailants' girlfriends testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of the attack. McKinney and Henderson testified that they learned of Shepard's address and intended to steal from his home as well.After attacking Shepard and leaving him tied to the fence in near-freezing temperatures, McKinney and Henderson returned to town. McKinney proceeded to pick a fight with two Hispanic youths, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara. The fight resulted in head wounds for both Morales and McKinney.
Police officer Flint Waters arrived at the scene of the fight. He arrested Henderson, searched McKinney's truck, and found a blood-smeared gun along with Shepard's shoes and credit card. 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 was in a coma eighteen hours after the attack when he was discovered by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. Reggie Fluty, the first police officer to arrive at 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 that she might have been exposed to the virus due to cuts on her hands. After taking an AZT regimen for several months, she tested negative for HIV. Judy Shepard later wrote that she learned of her son's HIV status while he lay dying in the hospital.
Shepard was transported first to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie before being moved to the more advanced trauma ward at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. He 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 six days after the attack at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998. He was 21.
McKinney and Henderson were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. After Shepard's death, the charges were upgraded from attempted murder to first-degree murder, which meant that the two defendants were eligible for the death penalty. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, were charged with being accessories after the fact.
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.
On April 5, 1999, Henderson avoided going to trial when he pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping charges. In order to avoid the death penalty, he agreed to testify against McKinney and was sentenced by District Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell to two consecutive life terms. At Henderson's sentencing, his lawyer argued that Shepard had not been targeted because he was gay.
McKinney's trial took place in October and November 1999. 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." 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. Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by "greed and violence", rather than by Shepard's sexual orientation.
The jury found McKinney not guilty of premeditated murder but guilty of felony murder and began to deliberate on the death penalty. Shepard's parents brokered a deal that resulted in McKinney 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.
Following her testimony at McKinney's trial, Price pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer.