Matthew Shepard – A Short Life, A Long Legacy

by J-Stacknik

Judy Shepard wrote this book about her son’s murder, subsequent trial and their work to advance civil rights. She and her husband Dennis are also the co-founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation which focusses on erasing hate in society.

Matthew Shepard may have been only 21 when he died, but his story continues to have a great impact on both young and old alike. Matthew was described as an optimistic and accepting young man, who always put his family and friends first. He was the type of guy who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. He had a passion for equality and stood up for the acceptance of people’s differences. He had a love for acting and politics and was chosen student representative for the University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Environmental Council. Matthew was also openly gay, and this is what lead to the tragic way he died.

Shortly after midnight on October 7th, 1998, Matthew met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. It was decided that McKinney and Henderson would give Matthew a ride home. They drove the car to a remote, rural area and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Matthew, tying him to a fence and leaving him for dead. He was found 18 hours later by a cyclist who mistook him for a scarecrow at first. It was five days later that Matthew succumbed to his injuries and died surrounded by his family.

During the trial of the two accused, witnesses stated that Matthew was targeted because of his sexual orientation. The trial brought national and international attention to the contention of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. At trial McKinney offered various rationals to justify his actions. He originally pleaded the gay panic defence, arguing that he and Henderson were driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Matthew. At another point McKinney’s lawyers stated that they had only wanted to rob Shepard, and never intended to kill him.

Eventually Henderson pleaded guilty on April 4, 1999 and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. The jury in McKinney’s trial found him guilty of felony murder. As they were deliberating the death penalty, Matthew’s parents brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.

The Matthew Shepard story received national and international media attention and Matthew became a symbol for gay rights activists and the nature of his death led to requests for new legislation addressing hate crime. The Matthew Shepard Act was passed by the Senate on October 22, 2009, over eleven years after Matthew’s death and was signed as law by President Obama on October 28, 2009.

Of significant note during Matthew’s funeral an anti-gay church group called Westboro Baptist Church lead by Fred Phelps took their “God Hates Fags” message to the funeral of Matthew Shepard, held in Casper, Wyoming, shouting and holding signs that read “No Tears for Queers” and “Fag Matt In Hell”. Phelps and his group also protested with these signs at the trial of the accused. Romaine Patterson a friend of Matthew’s decided to try to prevent the protesters from being seen. He came up with what he called angel wings they were white sheets fastened to tubing that he and a group of people strapped to their back and arms. They stood in front of the protesters and spread there arms and the sheets created a shield so that the the offensive signs could not be seen.

Read more:

Matthew Shepard Foundation


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