Mur­der of gay man res­onates 20 years later

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION+WORLD - By Mead Gru­ver

When two roof­ing work­ers beat a young gay man to death in Wy­oming in 1998, the grue­some crime quickly re­ver­ber­ated around the U.S. and turned the sandy­haired col­lege stu­dent into a pow­er­ful sym­bol of the quest for ac­cep­tance and equal rights.

But two decades af­ter Matthew Shep­ard was blud­geoned, tied to a rail fence and left to die on the cold high prairie, the emo­tions stirred by his slay­ing linger in Wy­oming, which still strug­gles with its tar­nished iden­tity and re­sists changes sought by the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

“We’re nowhere near done,” said Sara Burlingame, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cheyenne-based LGBTQ ad­vo­cacy group Wy­oming Equal­ity. The group’s work to­day “is the same thing that was there 20 years ago.”

As re­cently as Tues­day, days be­fore the an­niver­sary of Shep­ard’s death, about 200 peo­ple at­tended a fo­rum in Laramie ques­tion­ing the pre­vail­ing view that he was mur­dered be­cause of his sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Wy­oming Equal­ity protested by hold­ing a dance at a civic cen­ter down the street, us­ing the slo­gan “When They Go Low ... We Go Dance.”

The ac­ri­mony over Shep­ard’s legacy runs high here, just as it did when anti-gay and gay-rights pro­test­ers squared off at his fu­neral in Casper. Even now, peo­ple as­so­ciate Laramie with the mur­der.

“Once peo­ple find out I’m from Laramie, Wy­oming, they still zero in on this hate crime,” said Trudy McCraken, who spoke at the fo­rum and was Laramie’s mayor at the time of the slay­ing.

Wy­oming re­mains “deeply de­fen­sive” about the idea that Shep­ard was tar­geted be­cause he was gay, Burlingame said.

Known as the Equal­ity State, Wy­oming got its nick­name for be­ing the first to let women vote. To­day it has fewer women in its Leg­is­la­ture than any other state and re­mains hes­i­tant to adopt poli­cies to counter anti-gay bias and vi­o­lence.

It is among just five states — along with Arkansas, Ge­or­gia, In­di­ana and South Carolina — that have not passed laws fo­cused on crimes mo­ti­vated by the vic­tim’s iden­tity, such as their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed a fed­eral hate crime preven­tion act named af­ter Shep­ard in 2009, a law that Shep­ard’s mother, Judy Shep­ard, said has been help­ful.

Laramie did not pass an or­di­nance bar­ring dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity un­til 2015. The Uni­ver­sity of Wy­oming cre­ated its di­ver­sity of­fice only last year.

At­tor­neys for Wy­oming in 2014 ar­gued in de­fense of the state’s def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage as only be­tween a man and a woman, a case later ren­dered moot by higher court rul­ings.

At­ti­tudes against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity per­sist in Wy­oming, but LGTBQ ac­cep­tance has ad­vanced, said Ja­son Mars­den, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Den­ver­based Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion.

“Twenty years on, it’s a heck of a lot closer to be­ing a place where peo­ple can en­joy their lives more or less equally,” said Mars­den, who was a news­pa­per re­porter and friend of Shep­ard’s at the time of his killing.

The con­victed killers, Aaron McKin­ney and Rus­sell Hen­der­son, are each serv­ing two con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences.

Hen­der­son, now 41, said the U.S. should have laws that pro­tect every­one, no mat­ter who they are.

“As tragic as it is, and as un­for­tu­nate as it is, and as hard as it is for Matthew’s fam­ily, and for my fam­ily, for all of us, to go through, it opened up all of us to be bet­ter peo­ple and re­ally think about who we are,” Hen­der­son said of Shep­ard’s death in a pri­son in­ter­view Tues­day with The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Still, he in­sisted, nei­ther he nor McKin­ney was mo­ti­vated by anti-gay ha­tred when they of­fered Shep­ard a ride home from a bar. In­stead, he said, they were out to rob him of money and pos­si­bly drugs when they drove him to the edge of town on the night of Oct. 6, 1998.

He de­scribed him­self as a fol­lower of oth­ers, in­clud­ing the more charis­matic McKin­ney, and was afraid to lose face by do­ing more to pre­vent the crime or just go­ing home.

As Hen­der­son drove, McKin­ney be­gan pis­tol­whip­ping Shep­ard and took his wal­let. Hen­der­son tied Shep­ard to the fence af­ter McKin­ney told him to do it, he said. Then they left Shep­ard in the frigid dark­ness.

The next day, a moun­tain biker found him. He died less than a week later, on Oct. 12, 1998, at age 21.

Hen­der­son’s re­marks don’t change the facts of the case, which in­clude McKin­ney’s con­fes­sion to po­lice, Mars­den said.

McKin­ney re­peat­edly used ho­mo­sex­ual slurs in his con­fes­sion, Mars­den said. McKin­ney’s lawyers also wanted to ar­gue that Shep­ard caused McKin­ney to ex­plode in a rage by putting his hand on McKin­ney’s leg.

The judge pro­hib­ited the “gay panic” de­fense.

Be­cause of over­crowd­ing at Wy­oming’s max­i­mum­se­cu­rity pri­son in Rawl­ins, Hen­der­son and McKin­ney have served their time in mul­ti­ple states. McKin­ney is now in a Mis­sis­sippi pri­son and not agree­ing to in­ter­view re­quests, ac­cord­ing to the Wy­oming De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions.

Hen­der­son, who pleaded guilty to avoid a pos­si­ble death sen­tence, is serv­ing his time at a medium-se­cu­rity pri­son in Tor­ring­ton, a quiet farm­ing-and-ranch­ing town a few miles from the Ne­braska line. He helps im­pris­oned hospice pa­tients and trains shel­ter dogs so they can be adopted.

“I think about Matthew every sin­gle day of my life. I think about him and every sin­gle one of those days that I’ve had that he hasn’t had, his fam­ily hasn’t had, his friends haven’t had. I’m so, so ashamed I was ever part of this,” Hen­der­son said.

One gay rights ac­tivist ar­gues that Hen­der­son has paid his dues for what he de­scribed as be­ing “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I think he has atoned. I think he has a con­tri­bu­tion to make to so­ci­ety,” said Mal­colm Lazin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Philadel­phia-based LGBT group Equal­ity Fo­rum and a former fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor.

Mars­den pointed out that only Wy­oming’s gov­er­nor could com­mute Hen­der­son’s sen­tence, a prospect that he called “su­per un­likely.” Burlingame of the Wy­oming Equal­ity group said she be­lieves in re­demp­tion but doubts Hen­der­son has re­ally atoned for the crime.

She said her or­ga­ni­za­tion will con­tinue its “un­apolo­getic ad­vo­cacy,” reach­ing out to churches, busi­nesses, leg­is­la­tors and reg­u­lar cit­i­zens about their poli­cies and at­ti­tudes.

“For the last 20 years, the work of Wy­oming Equal­ity has re­ally been this race, that we want to get to every LGBT per­son out there,” Burlingame said. “But we’re also try­ing to get to the next Aarons and the next Rus­sells.”

ED ANDRIESKI—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Oct. 9, 1998 file photo, from left are Rus­sell Hen­der­son, Aaron McKin­ney, and Ch­a­sity Pasley, three sus­pects in the beat­ing death of gay Uni­ver­sity of Wy­oming stu­dent Matthew Shep­ard wait to be ar­raigned in Laramie, Wyo.

This un­dated photo pro­vided by the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion, shows Matthew Shep­ard, left, with his par­ents, Judy and Den­nis Shep­ard.

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