How The Hate Crime Murder Of Matthew Shepard Changed History

Matthew Shepard died following a six-day coma that resulted from being beaten, tortured, and left to die in October 1998.

June 15, 2021
By: Mike McPadden

The murder of Matthew Shepard, when he was only 21 years old, occurred on October 12, 1998. By any measure, the University of Wyoming student’s killing stands as a horrifying tragedy and a heinous, unconscionable act. But the crime quickly took on far larger connotations than just being a homicide.

Shepard died following a six-day coma that resulted from Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney — a pair of men he met at the Fireside Bar, a relatively gay-friendly tavern — beating, torturing, and leaving him to die.

The brutual hate crime killing of Matthew Shepard drew global attention

Henderson and McKinney culminated their pummeling of Shepard by tying him to a deer-proofing fence on a remote, rural roadside and setting him on fire. Afterward, they drove into town and picked a fistfight with a pair of youths.

Eighteen hours passed before a passing bicyclist thought he saw a burnt, battered scarecrow hanging up on a fence. Upon closer inspection, the cyclist saw that the figure was Matthew Shepard and he summoned help.

The news story broke fast and went global. Worldwide candlelight vigils honored Shepard as he lingered in the hospital. When Shepard finally died, the impact proved historic.

In death, Matthew Shepard instantly took on new life as an icon for the unconscionable human toll of homophobia. His murder mobilized the LGBTQ community to take definitive, outspoken, and active stands against queer hate crimes. The case also initiated revolutionary legal changes by way of hate crime legislation nationwide.

Prior to his death, Matthew had attended a LGBTQ student group meeting

Born in 1976, Matthew Wayne Shepard grew up in Casper, Wyoming. He was an outstanding student, showing an aptitude for politics, languages, and theater. The University of Wyoming selected Shepard to represent the school at the Wyoming Environmental Conference.

On October 6, 1998, after a meeting of the LBGTQ student group on campus, Shepard dropped by the Fireside Bar by himself for a drink.

Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney idled in, bought a pitcher of beer with loose change, and struck up a conversation with Shepard. After hanging out for a while, the three men left the Fireside just after midnight and got into McKinney’s truck. The nightmare ensued from there.

Police picked up Henderson and McKinney after their post-murder brawl. Laramie PD Sergeant Rob Debree took McKinney’s statement.

Court documents revealed McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay to lure Matthew in

According to court documents, McKinney said he and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to lure Shepard out of the bar so they could rob him. They reportedly commenced the attack after Shepard put his hand on McKinney’s knee. Throughout his interview, McKinney used anti-gay epithets, derisively referring to Shepard.

After committing their atrocities against Shepard, McKinney said they stole his wallet and keys with the intention of robbing the victim’s residence. On their way to Shepard’s apartment, then, the two got into the fight with the other two youths.

As authorities built their cases against Henderson and McKinney, the Shepard family had to lay Matthew to rest. Media attention had already turned what might have been a private, personal memorial and mourning period into a major news event.

The anti-LGBTQ Westboto Baptist Church protested Matthew's funeral

Worse, the virulently anti-gay, publicity-chasing Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) entered the picture, adding to the Shepards' anguish and overall tensions.

The WBC protested outside Shepard’s funeral, shouting coarse rhetoric and waving picket signs with derogatory messages.

Later, the WBC kept up their demonstrations during legal proceedings against Shepard’s killers, but they were counter-protested by Matthew’s Angels.” The group, founded by Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson wore angel costumes with broad white wings that they used to obscure the WBC’s signs from public view.

The jury found McKinney guilty of felony murder

On April 5, 1999, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping, and agreed to testify against McKinney in exchange for being spared the death penalty. He got two consecutive life sentences instead.

McKinney's lawyers maintained that robbery was the lone motivation, although they did propose a temporary insanity scenario, claiming that the killer experienced gay panic and was not responsible for his actions. The judge tossed that idea out quickly.

The jury found McKinney guilty of felony murder. He, too, is presently serving two consecutive life sentences.

The 1988 rape and murder of Gordon Church 10 years prior was extremely similar but did not receive as much attention due to the lack of national conversation surrounding hate crimes

Almost a decade before Shepard's death, gay Mormon college student Gordon Church was brutually killed in Cedar City, Utah because his attackers believed he was gay.

Although the story didn't recieve national recognition as an LGBTQ hate crime at the time, the circumstances of Church's killing bore a striking resemblance to the murder of Matthew Shepard.

In November 1988, the 28-year-old Southern Utah State College student had stopped at a 7-Eleven for cigarettes while on his way to meet with friends for a Thanksgiving dinner. At the dinner, Church encountered two recent parolees, Michael Archuleta and Lance Wood.

Archuleta and Wood convinced Church to travel with them to a remote location in Cedar Canyon where they tortured, raped, and murdered him by beating him to death before burying him in a shallow grave.

In two separate trials, Archuleta and Wood were both convicted of capital murder. Wood was sentenced to life in prison, while Archuleta was sentenced to death.

More than ten years after his death, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law was signed into law in October 2009

In the firestorm surrounding the Shepard murder and his killers’ convictions, political pressure arose to enact or expand hate crime regulations. Arguments about the various aspects of such rulings continued for years.

Finally, on October 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The same year as Shepard’s murder, James Byrd, Jr., a Black man, was tied behind a car and dragged to death by a pair of racists.

According to the United States Department of Justice:

“[The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Law] creates a new federal criminal law which criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when:

(1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin of any person or (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.”

What remains nondebatable, of course, is that Matthew Shepard met a fate that absolutely no one deserves, and that his loss did lead to gains in understanding and taking actions to correct the fully horrendous impact of unchecked hate.