The Matthew Shephard Case

Matthew Shephard (1976 - 1998)

The 12th of October 2008 marked the 10 Year Anniversary of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard.  Matthew was a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming.  He wanted to become a diplomat or work in politics and in his spare time enjoyed camping, fishing and skiing.

At around midnight on the 6th October 1998, Matthew was taken from a bar by two other men to a deserted field about a mile from Laramie.  Once there, these men tied him to a fence, beat him with a pistol, tortured him and left him for dead. A young cyclist found Matthew eighteen hours later.

Matthew had severe head injuries and remained in a coma until his death at 12.53 am on October 12, 1998. Matthew’s death shocked the world and brought international attention to the issue of hate crime.

What Happened to his Killers?

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 jury in McKinney's trial found him guilty of felony murder. As it began to deliberate on the death penalty, Shepard's parents brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.

Russell Henderson (21) and Aaron McKinney (22) were convicted of killing Matthew Shepard.  It was confirmed that they had killed Matthew because he was gay.

The judge allowed Matthew’s parents to decide whether or not McKinney (as the killer) should receive the death penalty.

Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard told the court that they would not ask for the death penalty.

He told McKinney: “I give you life in the memory of someone who no longer lives.  May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.” 

Both McKinney and Henderson are serving life sentences in Wyoming.

Anti-Gay Protest and Angel Action

The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, led by Fred Phelps, picketed Matthew’s funeral, as well as the trial of the accused.  They displayed signs with slogans such as ‘Matthew Shepard rots in Hell’, ‘AIDS Kills Fags Dead’ and ‘God Hates Fags’.

As a counter protest during Russell Henderson’s trial, Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew’s best friends organized a group of individuals, who assembled in a circle around the Phelps group wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protestors.

Afterwards, Romaine was often asked to speak about this to help promote tolerance in Laramie and beyond.

What Happened next?

A month after Matthew’s murder a group of actors from New York came to Laramie to talk to 200 people who had been affected by his death. They created ‘The Laramie Project’ - dramatising the events and aftermath of Mathew’s death. This groundbreaking play, which was made into an award winning film, has been produced over 5000 times across the world.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation

In the years following Matthew’s murder, his mother and father set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation in memory of their son. Their ultimate goal is to replace hate with, “understanding, compassion and acceptance” particularly promoting diversity and tolerance in youth organizations. Over the past ten years the Foundation has worked tirelessly to erase hate through a number of projects.

Does this happen only in America?

No. On the 25th of July 2008, Michael Causer, an 18 year old from Liverpool was murdered in a gay hate attack.  The fact that Michael lost his life, in the year that marks the 10th anniversary of Matthew’s murder, is a chilling reminder that there is still much work to be done to erase homophobia.