October 12

This Day in History

Crime

Oct 12, 1998:

The victim of an anti-gay assault dies

University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard dies after a vicious attack by two anti-gay bigots. After meeting Shepard in a Laramie, Wyoming, gay bar, The Fireside Lounge, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney lured him to the parking lot, where he was savagely attacked and robbed.

The two attackers then took Shepard, 21 years old and weighing just over 100 pounds, to a remote spot outside of town and tied his naked body to a wooden fence, tortured him, and left him in the freezing cold. Two mountain bikers, who initially thought his mutilated body was a scarecrow, discovered him. Shepard died soon afterward. Henderson and McKinney went on to attack two Latino youths later that same evening, beating and pistol-whipping them. Matthew Shepard's death sparked national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person's sexual orientation. President Clinton implored Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the wake of the incident.

To avoid a death sentence, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in April 1999 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Later that year, Aaron McKinney attempted to use a "gay panic" defense at his own trial, claiming that Sheppard's advances disgusted him. When McKinney sought to introduce evidence that a man had molested him as a child, Judge Barton Voigt would not allow it. He ruled that the defense was too similar to temporary insanity, which is not an option in Wyoming.

McKinney was convicted of Shepard's murder but managed to escape the death penalty largely due to Shepard's parents. In the tense and quiet courtroom, Dennis Shepard told his son's murderer, "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy." McKinney was sentenced to life in prison. Henderson's and McKinney's girlfriends, who had helped Henderson and McKinney dispose of evidence, were charged as accessories to the murder.

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