*originally posted October 12, 2009
He was just a kid. A slight kid, a sweet kid. A gay. But it wasn't the kid who got noticed on this day seventeen years ago, it was his murder that caught us all, gay and straight, off-guard.
Matthew Wayne Shepard was a twenty-one year-old college student at the University of Wyoming. And he was gay. And, for being gay, he was tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming. His attack occurred on October 6, but Mathew didn't die until almost a week later.
Matthew was born in Wyoming, and grew up there, though he spent his last high school year at The American School in Switzerland. After that he returned home to attend Catawba College and Casper College before becoming a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming.
Political science. Matthew might have been a politician, or a community organizer, or a gay rights activist. Or a teacher or a bartender or any number of other things which we'll never know because he never got the chance to be anything else.
He was described by his parents, Judy and Dennis, as "an optimistic and accepting young man [who] had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."
He might have done so much.
But Matthew knew he was gay, and so did many other people. And like so many in the LGBT community, he faced physical and verbal abuse all throughout his life, and death. In 1995, during a high school trip to Morocco, he was beaten and raped, leaving him withdrawn from friends and family and battling depression and panic attacks. But he soldiered on, went back to school and seemed to be coming out of his depression.
Then, just after midnight on October 7, 1998, Matthew met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in a bar. McKinney and Henderson offered Shepard a ride in their car. They took him to a remote area, tied him to a fence, robbed, pistol whipped, tortured him, and left him to die. They also found his address and decided to rob his home as well.
Matthew Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, who mistook the beaten, dying young man for a scarecrow. Matthew was barely alive. And suffering. There was a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital functions. There were also a dozen or more lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate.
Matthew Shepard never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead on October 12, 1998.
Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly thereafter, finding the bloody gun as well as the victim's shoes and wallet in their truck. The two men had attempted to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis, and used the "Gay Panic" defense, arguing that they beat, tortured and killed Matthew Shepard because he came on to them. They even tried to say they only wanted to rob him, not hurt him.
But they hurt an entire community.
Russell Henderson pleaded guilty in April, 1999, and agreed to testify against Aaron McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he was given two consecutive life sentences. The jury found Aaron McKinney guilty of felony murder, and as they 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.
In a statement read to the court, Dennis Shepard told McKinney the sentence means:
“You won’t be a symbol. No years of publicity, no chance of commutation, no nothing—just a miserable future and a miserable end.
It works for me…. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
Matthew. He was just a kid. A slight kid, a sweet kid. A gay kid. And he could have been any one of us, but in death, Matthew did what hadn't really been done before. He shone a light on hate crimes against the LGBT community. He gave us a face and a smile that needn't have been snuffed out so readily.
He could have been any one of us. He is every one of us.