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Matthew Shepard Beating Death Trial: 1999

Worldwide Publicity, State Seeks Death, Surprise Ending

Defendant Aaron James McKinney
Crimes Charged: Murder, kidnapping, robbery
Chief Defense Lawyers: Dion Custis, Jason Tangeman
Chief Prosecutor: Calvin Rerucha
Judge: Barton Voigt
Place: Laramie, Wyoming
Date of Trial: October 25-November 4, 1999
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Two life terms with no possibility of parole

SIGNIFICANCE: The murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student, by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson was publicized worldwide and gave a tremendous impetus to the drive to include hate crimes in criminal statutes.

After downing what they admitted were "several pitchers of beer," two 21-year-old high school dropouts, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, decided to rob another patron of the Laramie, Wyoming, bar they were in. The mark, Matthew Shepard, 21, looked good because he was small—5′2″ and 105 pounds—and homosexual. McKinney hated "queers." The two got into a conversation with Shepard, a freshman at the University of Wyoming, told him they were gay, and invited him to ride with them. In McKinney's father's pickup, Shepard told them he had just left a planning meeting for a Gay Awareness Week celebration.

"Guess what—we're not gay," McKinney said. "This is Gay Awareness Week." He hit the student with a stolen revolver. He hit him again, and again. He told Henderson, driving the truck, to pull over at a spot outside the city. He got out, pulled Shepard out of the truck, and hit him again. While beating the student, he told Henderson to get a rope from the truck and tie Shepard to a fence. He hit and kicked the bound student a few more times and stole his wallet and shoes.

Then the two dropouts drove off, leaving Shepard tied to the fence. It was the night of October 6, 1998. Winter comes early to the high plains of Wyoming. The temperature dropped to well below freezing.

Back in town, the two young thugs picked a fight with two Mexican-American teenagers. That didn't go as well for McKinney as his encounter with Shepard: he got a cut on his head. In a way, though, it was lucky. When police stopped the fight, McKinney told them the blood on his clothes came from that cut. But there was a lot of blood. Police became suspicious. When, the next day, a bicyclist reported seeing the unconscious Shepard tied to a fence—18 hours after the attack—Detective Sergeant Robert DeBree went after McKinney and Henderson. He found the stolen revolver, covered with blood, plus Shepard's credit card and shoes in the truck. He found the student's wallet at McKinney's home. Police also arrested Kristen Price, 18, who lived with McKinney and Chastity Paisley, 20, who lived with Henderson. The women had helped dispose of the bloody clothing.

Four days later, Shepard died without regaining consciousness. His attackers were charged with murder as well as kidnapping and robbery.

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