October 7, 1998– Matthew Shepard’s brutalized body is discovered.
Around 6:30pm on October 7, 1998, a young student at the University of Wyoming was found tied to a fence outside Laramie. He was discovered by a cyclist who, at first, mistakenly thought he was a scarecrow.
His name was Matthew Shepard. Late in the evening of the night before, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson offered to give Shepard a ride home from Fireside Lounge in Laramie. But instead, they drove Shepard to a remote area and robbed, pistol-whipped, and tortured him, tying his arms to a fence and leaving him to die in the freezing night air.
Shepard was in a coma when he was found. He was placed on full life-support and taken by ambulance to Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12. Shepard was just 21-years-old.
Police arrested McKinney and Henderson when they were caught after attacking two young Hispanic men. The police found a bloody gun and Shepard’s shoes and wallet in McKinney’s truck. The prosecuting attorney charged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay guys to lure Shepard out to McKinney’s pickup truck. An investigator said that the two men’s girlfriends helped them dump their bloody clothing after the crime, and reported hearing both men make anti-gay slurs about Shepard.
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 defense attorney argued that McKinney and Henderson were driven temporarily insane by sexual advances made by Shepard. At another point, the lawyer stated that they had only wanted to rob Shepard, and never intended to kill him. The jury found McKinney guilty of murder.
When the jury had to deliberate on whether to impose the death penalty, Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s parents, who oppose the death penalty, helped to broker a deal, resulting in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
The Shepards later founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates for LGBTQ Rights.
The Matthew Shepard And James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009 (Byrd was a black man dragged to his death behind a truck by racists in Texas). The law expanded a 1969 U.S. Federal Hate-Crime Law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
The always charming James Dobson, of Focus On The Family had argued that the act would “muzzle people of faith who dare to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality”.
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, then a Senator from Alabama, had opposed the bill arguing that it would be a step closer to the prosecution of “thought crimes” and that it would prevent religious organizations from expressing their beliefs openly, although the bill only refers to violent actions, not speech. Republican Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the hate crime labeling of Shepard’s murder a “hoax”.
The bill passed the House by a vote of 249–175, with support from 231 Democrats and 18 Republicans. The bill passed the Senate as an amendment to a Defense Spending bill by a vote of 68–29, with support from five Republicans: Susan Collins (ME), Richard Lugar (IN), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Olympia Snowe (ME), and George Voinovich (OH).
I was on a 19th anniversary trip to NYC with my partner, not yet husband, when we heard the story of finding the body on the television news in our hotel room. I don’t think the story sunk in until we were back home and Shepard’s passing became a major story. On October 7, it was a just a blip. I hope Matthew Shepard’s story is not a blip 19 years later. Session’s Justice Department has directed a roll-back on the reporting of hate crimes.