MATTHEW SHEP­ARD: RE­CALL­ING A STATE OF HATE

On the 20th an­niver­sary of Matt’s hor­rific mur­der, DNA speaks to his mum, Judy.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT #225 - By Xav Judd

Some­times a crime is so shock­ing that it strikes a raw nerve in the pub­lic con­scious­ness. The killing of Matthew Shep­ard is an ex­am­ple. On Oc­to­ber 6th, 1998 in Laramie, Wy­oming, USA, 21-year-old uni­ver­sity stu­dent Matthew Shep­ard was tied to a wooden fence, tor­tured and left to die. On the 20th an­niver­sary of one of the worst gay hate crimes in Amer­i­can his­tory, DNA re­vis­its what hap­pened on that night and why. Matthew’s mother, Judy speaks to us about the events fol­low­ing his death, and how the cur­rent US Pres­i­dent is un­der­min­ing LGBTIQ civil rights.

First, the events of that evening… Matthew, who was study­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Wy­oming’s state uni­ver­sity, was at The Fire­side Lounge in Laramie. At the bar, he was ap­proached by two young men, Aaron McKin­ney and Rus­sell Hen­der­son. Both were high school drop-outs who held me­nial jobs.

They of­fered him a ride home in their car but, in­stead, drove to a se­cluded, ru­ral lo­ca­tion where they robbed, beat, and pis­tol­whipped Matthew. After the beat­ing he was hog-tied to a buck-rail fence in near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and left for dead.

Matt’s in­juries were hor­rific. It was re­ported that the only part of his face not cov­ered in blood was where it was washed clean by tears. He was dis­cov­ered, 18 hours later, by cy­clist Aaron Kreifels. At first, Kreifels mis­took the stricken, limp fig­ure as a scare­crow.

The first po­lice of­fi­cer to ar­rive on the scene was Reg­gie Fluty. She used her bare hands to clear an air­way in Matthew’s throat. Ini­tially, he was taken to Laramie’s Ivin­son Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to a more spe­cial­ist trauma cen­tre at Poudre Val­ley Hospi­tal in Fort Collins, Colorado.

His wounds in­cluded frac­tures to the back of the skull and front of the right ear and acute brain stem dam­age, lim­it­ing the op­por­tu­nity of reg­u­lat­ing heart rate, body tem­per­a­ture and vi­tal func­tions. He had var­i­ous small lac­er­a­tions on the neck, head and face. The sub­stan­tial trauma meant doc­tors were un­able to per­form surgery.

As he lay un­con­scious in in­ten­sive care, news of the at­tack and its ho­mo­pho­bic na­ture spread around the world prompt­ing can­dle­light vig­ils in many cities. Matthew never re­gained con­scious­ness and died six days after the as­sault.

Hen­der­son and McKin­ney were caught al­most im­me­di­ately. They re­turned to Laramie that same night where they got into a fight with some other men, which at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the po­lice. When Of­fi­cer Flint Wa­ters ar­rived at the dis­tur­bance, he ap­pre­hended Hen­der­son and, while search­ing McKin­ney’s ve­hi­cle came across a blood-smeared gun, Matthew’s credit card and his shoes.

The pair were charged with ag­gra­vated rob­bery, kid­nap­ping and at­tempted mur­der, but when Matt suc­cumbed to his in­juries in the early hours of Oc­to­ber 12th, the in­dict­ments were up­graded to first-de­gree mur­der – mean­ing, if con­victed, both could re­ceive the death penalty.

Hen­der­son’s de­fence moved for­ward first. In April 1999, he averted go­ing to trial or the prospect of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment by plead­ing guilty to kid­nap­ping and mur­der and ac­cept­ing two con­sec­u­tive life terms.

McKin­ney, whose case was heard that Fall, made the same deal so re­ceived an iden­ti­cal sen­tence but, dur­ing his trial, McKin­ney’s >>

He was dis­cov­ered, 18 hours later, by a cy­clist who mis­took the stricken, limp fig­ure as a scare­crow. It was re­ported that the only part of his face not cov­ered in blood was where it was washed clean by tears.

>> at­tor­ney pro­posed a “gay panic de­fence”, say­ing that his client had ex­pe­ri­enced a tem­po­rary in­san­ity due to al­leged sex­ual ad­vances by Matthew.

How­ever, De­tec­tive Ben Fritzen was al­ready on record say­ing that Kris­ten Price, McKin­ney’s girl­friend, had con­firmed that McKin­ney re­vealed the hos­til­ity di­rected against Matthew was be­cause of how he felt “about gays”. It was Price’s state­ment that alerted po­lice and the me­dia to the ho­mo­pho­bic na­ture of the mur­der. Price also told po­lice that nei­ther of the men were un­der the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol or drugs on the night they killed Matthew. She later at­tempted to with­draw her state­ment.

Both killers were in­car­cer­ated in the Wy­oming State Pen­i­ten­tiary in Rawl­ins.

Some de­tails of the crime, as they were pre­sented at the orig­i­nal tri­als have, in re­cent years, been sub­ject to con­jec­ture.

In 2004, ABC (USA) news show 20/20 broad­cast a seg­ment quot­ing state­ments from Hen­der­son, Price, McKin­ney, pros­e­cu­tor Cal Rerucha, and a lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor. They claimed that the homi­cide had not oc­curred be­cause of Matthew’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion but had been a drug-re­lated rob­bery gone wrong.

In 2013, Stephen Jimenez, the pro­ducer of the 20/20 piece, pub­lished The Book Of Matt: Hid­den Truths About The Mur­der Of Matthew Shep­ard. In the book, he as­serted that Matthew had been a meth dealer and that he and McKin­ney, his pri­mary ex­e­cu­tioner, had been en­gag­ing in ca­sual sex.

Most crit­ics re­jected the book as be­ing poorly re­searched and con­tain­ing largely un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims. The po­lice of­fi­cers who in­ves­ti­gated the case re­jected the au­thor’s ma­jor as­sump­tions out­right.

How­ever, in order to gain a deeper un­der­stand­ing of this of­fence, it is nec­es­sary to see Matthew be­yond the con­text of the “gay-bashed vic­tim” and look at some of the other as­pects of his life. He was a gre­gar­i­ous, kind-hearted kid, but had his share of de­mons. Com­ing out is never easy, es­pe­cially in a small town. He was also raped while on a high school trip to Mo­rocco. Un­der­stand­ably, nu­mer­ous panic at­tacks and bouts of de­pres­sion fol­lowed.

Matthew was HIV pos­i­tive. Of­fice Reg­gie Fluty, the cop who cleared his air­ways with her bare hands, had cuts on her fin­gers which ex­posed her to a risk of in­fec­tion. After tak­ing an AZT reg­i­men for a few months she was given the all-clear.

Sur­pris­ingly to many, Matthew’s par­ents, Judy and Den­nis, didn’t push for the death penalty for Hen­der­son and McKin­ney. I asked Judy Shep­ard why.

“There was a con­tentious de­bate among us when the de­fence at­tor­neys first brought the pro­posal for­ward – to ac­cept two con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences and re­move con­sid­er­a­tion for the death penalty,” she says. “In the be­gin­ning, we were all against it.”

But, as dis­cus­sions pro­gressed, the Shep­ard fam­ily learned that if they ac­cepted the life sen­tences it would mean that there’d be no re­tri­als or ap­peals ev­ery few years. “And that set­tled the ar­gu­ment for us,” says Judy. “We didn’t want our younger son to have to deal with it, and we didn’t want Matt’s killers to be mar­tyrs of any sort.”

An­other fea­ture of the trial was that the hate group, the West­boro Bap­tist Church, pick­eted out­side the court build­ing (as well as at Shep­ard’s fu­neral at St Mark’s Episcopal Church). At the time, West­boro Bap­tists were led by Fred Phelps, who claimed that dis­as­ters are God’s pun­ish­ment for mankind’s im­moral­ity, es­pe­cially the in­creas­ing ac­cep­tance of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Out­side the court­house, church mem­bers held multi-coloured plac­ards read­ing “Matt In Hell”, “Thank God for AIDS” and their most in­fa­mous slo­gan, “God Hates Fags”.

In re­sponse, one of Matt’s friends, Ro­maine Pat­ter­son, put to­gether a coun­ter­demon­stra­tion in which in­di­vid­u­als in white robes with mas­sive wings, rep­re­sent­ing an­gels, en­cir­cled the West­boro group, to block them from the view of mourn­ers.

The West­boro Bap­tists’ an­i­mos­ity had a pro­found ef­fect on Matthew’s im­me­di­ate rel­a­tives. “I couldn’t un­der­stand how some­one could be­lieve they are a min­is­ter

Obama got it. He un­der­stood so­cial jus­tice and why we needed a law like this. We are very proud of it…

of God’s love when ev­ery word out of them is hate speech,” says Judy. “They clearly thought they had a win­ning mes­sage, point­ing their ha­tred at Matt and at me per­son­ally. But it be­came clear that Fred Phelps and that fam­ily were just us­ing Matt’s story to get at­ten­tion for their ou­tra­geous ideas and that it re­ally wasn’t about us at all.”

De­spite their un­imag­in­able loss, less than eight weeks after his death, Judy and Den­nis es­tab­lished The Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion.

“While Matt was in the hospi­tal, peo­ple from all over the coun­try and the world sent us let­ters, teddy bears and money,” says Judy. “They were urg­ing us to use our voices as ac­cept­ing par­ents with the hope that any­one who had re­jected some­body be­cause they hap­pened to be gay might re­think that po­si­tion since they still had the op­por­tu­nity to in­clude those folks in their life.

“We lis­tened to the pub­lic and started the [not-for-profit] or­gan­i­sa­tion. Our goals are to erase hate and re­place it with un­der­stand­ing, com­pas­sion and ac­cep­tance,” she says.

The char­ity has launched nu­mer­ous ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing, Matthew’s Place, an on­line com­mu­nity of­fer­ing sup­port to LGBTIQ teenagers and young adults; the Erase Hate In Busi­ness Cam­paign; and a Re­source Guide To Com­ing Out, among oth­ers.

Shortly after the mur­der, and moved by its bru­tal­ity, mem­bers of New York’s Tec­tonic The­ater Pro­ject reg­u­larly jour­neyed to Laramie and, over the course of 18 months, recorded in­ter­views with hun­dreds of its res­i­dents, who ex­pressed their thoughts and feel­ings con­cern­ing what had hap­pened. These in­ter­views, along with news re­ports and orig­i­nal court tran­scripts, were trans­formed into the play, The Laramie Pro­ject in 2000. Writ­ten by Moisés Kauf­man, the three-act drama sees eight ac­tors take on nearly 60 dif­fer­ent roles. In var­i­ous pro­duc­tions the cast has in­cluded Chad Allen, An­drew Garfield and Rus­sell Tovey.

The play has been per­formed in the UK, Canada, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Ire­land and helps bring an anti-ho­mo­pho­bia mes­sage to schools, col­leges and com­mu­nity theatres all over the United States. In the United King­dom the play was in­cluded in the Gen­eral Cer­tifi­cate Of Se­condary Ed­u­ca­tion’s Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture read­ing list. Kauf­man adapted the play into an HBO film in 2002.

In a bizarre turn of events, the West­boro Bap­tist Church, whose pick­et­ing is de­picted in the play, ac­tu­ally pick­eted out­side some of the Amer­i­can theatres where the play was staged.

Matthew’s death, how­ever, also pro­duced a more po­lit­i­cal le­gacy. When the at­tack hap­pened in Oc­to­ber 1998, Amer­i­can fed­eral law and Wy­oming state leg­is­la­tion had no pro­vi­sion to pros­e­cute crimes com­mit­ted on the ba­sis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion – what we know to­day as hate crimes. The hor­rific na­ture of the as­sault at­tracted world­wide me­dia cov­er­age and prompted many in­di­vid­u­als and groups to call for the law to be changed.

Over the fol­low­ing years, con­tin­u­ous ef­forts were made to add the spe­cific cat­e­gory of “hate crime” to the statute books at both a state and fed­eral level. All failed un­til fi­nally, in Oc­to­ber 2009, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed The Hate Crimes Pre­ven­tion Act, also known as The Matthew Shep­ard Act, into law.

Judy Shep­ard was not sur­prised that it took so long. “Pres­i­dent Bush made it clear that he was never go­ing to pass a mea­sure like that. But Obama got it,” she says. “He un­der­stood so­cial jus­tice and why we needed a law like this. We are very proud of it but know it’s not per­fect.”

Dur­ing Obama’s two terms as Pres­i­dent, other sig­nif­i­cant strides were made in LGBTIQ rights in­clud­ing the re­peal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, devel­op­ment of the first com­pre­hen­sive Na­tional HIV/AIDS strat­egy, the end­ing of the De­fence Of Mar­riage Act, paving the way for same-sex mar­riage, ini­ti­at­ing the web­site StopBul­ly­ing.gov, which has a sec­tion on re­sources for LGBTIQ youth, and recog­nis­ing LGBTIQ His­tory Month.

Noth­ing, how­ever, halts progress like a racist, misog­y­nist, pussy-grab­bing ho­mo­phobe. De­spite Don­ald Trump hold­ing up a Pride flag at a cam­paign func­tion dur­ing the 2016 Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, his first two years in of­fice have seen an as­sault on civil rights. This is fu­elled, partly, by his ob­ses­sion to over­turn ev­ery­thing Obama ac­com­plished.

His ad­min­is­tra­tion has at­tempted to re­store a ban on trans peo­ple en­ter­ing and openly serv­ing in the armed forces, quashed a memo that spec­i­fied trans work­ers are pro­tected un­der civil rights law, al­low­ing the fed­eral govern­ment to rea­son in court that an­ti­trans dis­crim­i­na­tion isn’t pro­hib­ited un­der fed­eral law, and ap­point­ing anti-LGBTIQ Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court.

Judy Shep­ard de­scribes these at­tacks on LGBTIQ rights as “mad­den­ing and fright­en­ing” and fears they are set to con­tinue at an even faster pace. Vice Pres­i­dent, Mike Pence, has opined that mar­riage equal­ity will lead to “so­ci­etal col­lapse”; the Sec­re­tary Of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment, Ben Car­son, as­so­ci­ated ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity with bes­tial­ity; and Sec­re­tary Of State, Mike Pom­peo, thinks gay sex is a “per­ver­sion”.

The anti-gay poli­cies and lan­guage em­a­nat­ing from Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion have le­git­imised those who want to at­tack our com­mu­nity. “Peo­ple who were pri­vate about their ha­tred now feel em­bold­ened to be pub­lic about it. It’s like squeez­ing tooth­paste out of the tube. It’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to shove it back in once it’s out,” says Judy.

Gay hate crimes have in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly since the cur­rent pres­i­dent took of­fice. Aca­demic jour­nal, The Con­ver­sa­tion, quotes fig­ures show­ing that in 2017, gen­eral hate crimes rose 12 per cent in more than

35 of Amer­i­can’s big­gest cities. Roughly 17.5 per cent of in­ci­dents can be ex­pected to be LGBTIQ cases, ac­cord­ing to FBI sta­tis­tics. The Na­tional Coali­tion Of Anti-Vi­o­lence Pro­grams re­ports a rise of over 80 per cent in LGBTIQ mur­ders in the USA when com­par­ing the 2017 and 2016 fig­ures.

The rolling back of LGBTIQ rights and spik­ing hate crimes are, of course, a bit­ter pill for Judy Shep­ard. Did her boy die in vain? But, now a sea­soned ac­tivist, she re­mains prag­matic. She sus­pects the cur­rent fig­ures are not ac­cu­rate as many LGBTIQ vic­tims are fear­ful of re­port­ing vi­o­lence.

“For the same rea­son that many in­di­vid­u­als are afraid to re­port sex­ual as­sault, peo­ple don’t re­port the hate crimes [they ex­pe­ri­ence]. Some­times they don’t know if what they ex­pe­ri­enced counts as one. Some­times they are afraid of be­ing re-vic­tim­ized by the po­lice. And on other oc­ca­sions they live in a state where, if you are outed, you could be fired from your job. Ed­u­ca­tion needs to hap­pen for both law en­force­ment and vic­tims and it needs to hap­pen quickly,” she says.

Matthew Shep­ard’s life was taken from him sav­agely and with mal­ice. His name is now syn­ony­mous with the bru­tal­ity of small-town ho­mo­pho­bia and re­li­gious big­otry. But his le­gacy is the Foun­da­tion in his name, the ex­is­tence of na­tional hate crimes leg­is­la­tion in the United States, and the sim­i­lar laws adopted by other coun­tries around the world.

His death has turned his mother into a war­rior for so­cial jus­tice, on a mis­sion to help save some­one else’s son.

Robbed, beaten and pis­tol­whipped then hog-tied to a fence in near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and left for dead.

Matthew Shep­ard.

Judy with Matthew (right) and younger brother, Lo­gan.

Matt’s par­ents, Judy and Den­nis Shep­ard.

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