This week, 19 years ago, the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard shocked the world. We decided to cover his story this week, as he eventually died while in the hospital on Oct. 12th, 1998. It’s important to remember his story. I remember hearing the news about his death, and it hit me very hard at the time—Matt and I were born around the same time, so I paid particular attention to his awful death—I cannot believe it’s almost been 20 years.
Matthew Wayne Shepard, born December 1st, 1976, was an American student at the University of Wyoming at the time of his beating. He was tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6, 1998. Six days later, he died from severe head injuries at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Perpetrators Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly after the attack and charged with first degree murder following Shepard's death. Significant media coverage was given to the killing and what role Shepard's sexual orientation might have played as a motive in the commission of the crime. The prosecutor argued that McKinney's murder of Shepard was premeditated and driven by greed. McKinney's defense counsel countered that he had only intended to rob Shepard, but had killed him in a rage when Shepard made a sexual advance towards him. McKinney's girlfriend told police that he had been motivated by anti-gay sentiment, but later recanted her statement, saying that she had lied because she thought it would help him. Both McKinney and Henderson were convicted of the murder and each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Shepard's murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. In October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly the "Matthew Shepard Act" or "Shepard/Byrd Act" for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law. Following her son's murder, Judy Shepard became a prominent LGBT rights activist and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Shepard's death inspired notable films, novels, plays, songs, and other works.
Shepard was born in 1976 in Casper, Wyoming; he was the first of two sons born to Judy and Dennis Shepard. His younger brother, Logan, was born in 1981. The two siblings grew up having a close relationship. Matthew attended Crest Hill Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High School, and Natrona County High School for his freshman through junior years. As a child, he was "friendly with all his classmates," but targeted for teasing due to his small stature and lack of athleticism. He developed an early interest in politics. Saudi Aramco hired his father in the summer of 1994, and Shepard's parents subsequently resided at the Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran. During that time, Shepard attended the American School in Switzerland, from which he graduated in May 1995. There, he participated in theater and took German and Italian courses. He then attended Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming, before settling in Denver. Shepard became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie with a minor in languages, and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.
He was described by his father 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." Michele Josue, who had been Shepard's friend and later created a documentary about him, Matt Shepard is A Friend of Mine,described him as "a tenderhearted and kind person." In February 1995, Shepard was beaten and raped during a high school trip to Morocco. This caused him to experience depression and panic attacks, according to his mother. One of Shepard's friends feared that his depression had driven him to become involved with drugs during his time in college. Multiple times, Shepard was hospitalized due to his clinical depression and suicidal ideation.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming; the three men were in their early twenties. McKinney and Henderson decided to give Shepard a ride home. They subsequently drove the car to a remote, rural area, and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tie him to a fence, and leave him to die. Media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol-whipping and his fractured skull. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears. Both of the assailants' girlfriends testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the attack. McKinney and Henderson testified in court that they discovered Shepard's address and intended to steal from his home as well.
After the attack, McKinney and Henderson returned to town and McKinney picked a fight with two Hispanic youths, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara. The fight led to head wounds for both Morales and McKinney. Police officer Flint Waters arrived at the scene, arrested Henderson, and soon found the bloody gun and Shepard's shoes and credit card in McKinney's truck. Henderson and McKinney later tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them and help them dispose of evidence.
Still tied to the fence, Shepard was in a coma 18 hours after the attack when he was discovered by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. Reggie Fluty, the first police officer to arrive at the scene, found Shepard alive but covered in blood. The medical gloves issued by the Albany County Sheriff's Department were faulty, and Fluty's supply ran out. She decided to use her bare hands to clear an airway in Shepard's bloody mouth. A day later, she was informed that Shepard was HIV positive, and she may have been exposed due to cuts on her hands. After taking an AZT regimen for several months, she tested negative for HIV. Judy Shepard later wrote she learned of her son's HIV status during his stay at the hospital following the attack.
Shepard had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brainstem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate his heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate on him. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. While he lay in intensive care and in the days following the attack, candlelight vigils were held around the world.
Shepard was pronounced dead six days after the attack at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was 21 years old.
Arrests and trial
McKinney and Henderson were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, were charged with being accessories after the fact. After Shepard's death, the charges were changed from attempted murder to first degree murder, meaning that the defendants were eligible for the death penalty.
At McKinney's November 1998 pretrial hearing, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that McKinney had stated in an interview on October 9 that he and Henderson had identified Shepard as a robbery target and pretended to be gay to lure him out to their truck, and that McKinney had attacked Shepard after Shepard put his hand on McKinney's knee. Detective Ben Fritzen testified that Price stated McKinney told her the violence against Shepard was triggered by how McKinney "[felt] about gays".
In December 1998, Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first degree murder.
On April 5, 1999, Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. At Henderson's sentencing, his lawyer argued that Shepard had not been targeted because he was gay.
McKinney went to trial in October and November 1999. Prosecutor Cal Rerucha alleged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay to gain Shepard's trust. Price, McKinney's girlfriend, testified that Henderson and McKinney had "pretended they were gay to get [Shepard] in the truck and rob him". Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by "greed and violence", rather than by Shepard's sexual orientation. McKinney's lawyer attempted to put forward a gay panic defense, arguing that McKinney was driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Shepard. This defense was rejected by the judge. McKinney's lawyer stated that the two men wanted to rob Shepard but never intended to kill him. I want to point out that this rejection of the gay panic defense was rare, for the times—up until then, it was regularly used successfully in defending murderers who targeted LGBT people, so kudos to this judge and how forward-thinking they were at the time.
The jury found McKinney not guilty of premeditated murder but guilty of felony murder and began to deliberate on the death penalty. Shepard's parents brokered a deal that resulted in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and were later transferred to other prisons because of overcrowding.
Price pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer following her testimony at McKinney's trial.
In 2004, Price said she had lied to police about McKinney having been provoked by an unwanted sexual advance from Shephard, telling TV journalist Elizabeth Vargas, "I don't think it was a hate crime at all." Fritzen told an interviewer "Matthew Shepard’s sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn’t the motive in the homicide..."
Hate crime legislation
During coverage of the incident, requests for new legislation to address hate crimes gained momentum. Under existing United States federal law and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes.
Within hours of the discovery of Shepard tied to the fence, his friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout began to contact media organizations claiming Shepard had been assaulted because he was gay. According to prosecutor Cal Rerucha, "They were calling the County Attorney's office, they were calling the media and indicating Matthew Shepard is gay and we don't want the fact that he is gay to go unnoticed." Tina Labrie, a close friend of Shepard's, said "[Boulden and Trout] wanted to make [Matt] a poster child or something for their cause". Boulden linked the attack to the absence of a Wyoming criminal statute providing for a hate crimes charge.
In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced that defined certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes. The measure failed on a 30–30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include homosexual individuals, women, and people with disabilities. A Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives in November 1997, and reintroduced in March 1999, but was passed by only the Senate in July 1999.
In September 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation; however it was stripped out in conference committee.
On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Shepard's parents attended the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007 (S. 1105), however then-President George W. Bush indicated he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The Democratic leadership dropped the amendment in response to opposition from conservative groups and Bush, and because the measure was attached to a defense bill there was a lack of support from antiwar Democrats.
On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, although it failed to pass. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said she was "still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed". Pelosi planned to get the bill passed in early 2008 although she did not succeed. Following his election as President, Barack Obama stated that he was committed to passing the Act.
The U.S. House of Representatives debated expansion of hate crimes legislation on April 29, 2009. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina unconscionably called the "hate crime" labeling of Shepard's murder a "hoax". Foxx later admitted her comments were quote "a poor choice of words".
The House passed the act, designated H.R. 1913, by a vote of 249 to 175. Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition introduced the bill in the Senate on April 28; it had 43 cosponsors as of June 17, 2009. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63–28 on July 15, 2009.
On October 22, 2009, the Senate passed the act by a vote of 68–29. President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.
Public reaction and aftermath
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, received national attention for picketing Shepard's funeral with signs bearing homophobic slogans, such as "Matt in Hell" and "God Hates Fags".
Members of the church also mounted anti-gay protests at the trials of McKinney and Henderson. In response, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard's, organized a group which assembled in a circle around the Westboro Baptist Church protesters, wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protesters, despite Shepard's parents being able to hear the protesters shouting anti-gay remarks and comments at them. Police had to create a human barrier between the two groups. Angel Action was founded by Patterson in April 1999.
Long after the trial was over, the murder continued to attract public attention and media coverage. In 2004, the ABC News news program 20/20 aired a report that quoted statements by McKinney, Henderson, Kristen Price, the prosecutor, and a lead investigator. The statements alleged that the murder had not been motivated by Shepard's sexuality but was primarily a drug-related robbery that had turned violent. Stephen Jimenez, the producer of the 2004 20/20 segment, went on to write a book on his theory of the attacks, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, which was published in September 2013. The book also said that Shepard and McKinney—the killer who inflicted the injuries—had been occasional sex partners.
Many commentators have criticized Jimenez' views on the attack as sensational and misleading, including by gay advocacy organizations and cultural critics. Some commentators, however, have spoken up to defend it. Police who were involved in the investigation have criticized Jimenez' conclusions, though the prosecutor, Cal Rerucha, said that there was evidence that drugs were at least one factor in the murder.
In the years following Shepard's death, his mother Judy Shepard has worked hard as an advocate for LGBT rights, particularly issues relating to gay youth. She was a main force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which she and her husband Dennis founded in December 1998.
Gay rights activist John Stoltenberg has said that to portray Shepard as a gay-bashing victim is to present an incomplete account of his victimization: "Keeping Matthew as the poster boy of gay-hate crime and ignoring the full tragedy of his story has been the agenda of many gay-movement leaders. Ignoring the tragedies of Matthew’s life prior to his murder will do nothing to help other young men in our community who are sold for sex, ravaged by drugs, and generally exploited.”
The Meaning of Matthew
The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed is a 2009 biographical book by Judy Shepard about her son Matthew. Judy Shepard speaks about her loss, her family memories of Matthew, and the tragic event that changed the Shepards' lives and America. The Meaning of Matthew follows the Shepard family in the days immediately after the crime to see their incapacitated son, kept alive by life support machines; how the Shepards learned of the huge public response, the candlelit vigils and memorial services for their child; and their struggles to navigate the legal system.
In popular culture
Numerous works have been inspired by Matthew Shepard's life, death, trial, and its aftermath, including documentary and narrative films and television shows, stage plays, and musical and written works. Additionally, openly gay NBA player Jason Collins wore the jersey number "98" in honor of Shepard during the 2012–13 season with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards. After Collins joined the Brooklyn Nets, in 2014, NBA marketing reported high interest in his "98" jersey, and high sales once it became available for purchase.
I wanted to close out Matt’s story with the speech given by his father, Dennis, during an open-court speech on November 4, 1999, at the conclusion of his trial—when asked to rise and speak and give his victims impact statement, Dennis stated the following:
“Your honor, members of the Jury, Mr. Rerucha:
I would like to begin my statement by addressing the jury. Ladies and gentlemen, a terrible crime was committed in Laramie thirteen months ago. Because of that crime, the reputation of the city of Laramie, the University of Wyoming, and the State of Wyoming became synonymous with gay bashing, hate crimes, and brutality. While some of this reputation may be deserved, it was blown out of proportion by our friends in the media. Yesterday you, the jury, showed the world that Wyoming and the city of Laramie will not tolerate hate crimes. Yes, this was a hate crime, pure and simple, with the added ingredient of robbery. My son Matthew paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States, and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination, and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day. Yesterday’s decision by you showed true courage and made a statement. That statement is that Wyoming is the Equality State; that Wyoming will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation; that violence is not the solution. Ladies and gentlemen, you have the respect and admiration of Matthew’s family and friends and of countless strangers around the world. Be proud of what you have accomplished. You may have prevented another family from losing a son or daughter.
Your honor, I would also like to thank you for the dignity and grace with which this trial was conducted. Repeated attempts to distract the court from the true purpose of this trial failed because of your attentiveness, knowledge, and willingness to take a stand and make new law in the area of sexual orientation and the “Gay Panic” defense. By doing so you have emphasized that Matthew was a human being with all the rights and responsibilities and protections of any citizen of Wyoming.
Mr. Rerucha took the oath of office as prosecuting attorney to protect the rights of the citizens of Albany County as mandated by the laws of the state of Wyoming, regardless of his personal feelings and beliefs. At no time did Mr. Rerucha make any decision on the outcome of this case without the permission of Judy and me. It was our decision to take this case to trial, just as it was our decision to accept the plea bargain today and the earlier plea bargain of Mr. Henderson. A trial was necessary to show that this was a hate crime and not just a robbery gone bad. If we had sought a plea bargain earlier, the facts of this case would not have been known and the question would always be present that we had something to hide. In addition, this trial was necessary to help provide some closure to the citizens of Laramie, Albany County, and the state. I find it intolerable that the priests of the Catholic Church and the Newman Center would attempt to influence the jury, the prosecution, and the outcome of this trial by their castigation and persecution of Mr. Rerucha and his family in his private life, by their newspaper advertisements, and by their presence in the courtroom. I find it difficult to believe that they speak for all Catholics. If the leaders of churches want to comment as private citizens, that is one thing. If they say that they represent the beliefs of their church, that is another. This country was founded on separation of church and state. The Catholic Church has stepped over the line and has become a political group with its own agenda. If that be the case, treat them as a political group and eliminate their privileges as a religious organization.
My son Matthew did not look like a winner. After all, he was small for his age—weighing, at the most, 110 pounds, and standing only 5’2” tall. He was rather uncoordinated and wore braces from the age of 13 until the day he died. However, in his all too brief life, he proved that he was a winner. My son—a gentle, caring soul—proved that he was as tough as, if not tougher than, anyone I have ever heard of or known. On October 6, 1998, my son tried to show the world that he could win again. On October 12, 1998, my first-born son—and my hero—lost. On October 12, my first-born son—and my hero— died 50 days before his 22nd birthday. He died quietly, surrounded by family and friends, with his mother and brother holding his hand. All that I have left now are the memories.
It’s hard to put into words how much Matt meant to family and friends and how much they meant to him. Everyone wanted him to succeed because he tried so hard. The spark that he provided to people had to be experienced. He simply made everyone feel better about themselves. Family and friends were his focus. He knew that he always had their support for anything that he wanted to try.
Matt’s gift was people. He loved being with people, helping people, and making others feel good. The hope of a better world free of harassment and discrimination because a person was different kept him motivated. All his life he felt the stabs of discrimination. Because of that he was sensitive to other people’s feelings. He was naive to the extent that, regardless of the wrongs people did to him, he still had faith that they would change and become “nice.” Matt trusted people, perhaps too much. Violence was not a part of his life until his senior year in high school. He would walk into a fight and try to break it up. He was the perfect negotiator. He could get two people talking to each other again as no one else could.
Matt loved people and he trusted them. He could never understand how one person could hurt another, physically or verbally. They would hurt him, and he would give them another chance. This quality of seeing only good gave him friends around the world. He didn’t see size, race, intelligence, sex, religion, or the hundred other things that people use to make choices about people. All he saw was the person. All he wanted was to make another person his friend. All he wanted was to make another person feel good. All he wanted was to be accepted as an equal.
What did Matt’s friends think of him? Fifteen of his friends from high school in Switzerland, as well as his high school adviser, joined hundreds of others at his memorial services. They left college, fought a blizzard, and came together one more time to say good-bye to Matt. Men and women coming from different countries, cultures, and religions thought enough of my son to drop everything and come to Wyoming—most of them for the first time. That’s why this Wyoming country boy wanted to major in foreign relations and languages. He wanted to continue making friends and at the same time help others. He wanted to make a difference. Did he? You tell me.
I loved my son and, as can be seen throughout this statement, was proud of him. He was not my gay son. He was my son who happened to be gay. He was a good-looking, intelligent, caring person. There were the usual arguments, and at times he was a real pain in the butt. I felt the regrets of a father when he realizes that his son is not a star athlete. But it was replaced with a greater pride when I saw him on the stage. The hours that he spent learning his parts, working behind the scenes, and helping others made me realize that he was actually an excellent athlete—in a more dynamic way—because of the different types of physical and mental conditioning required by actors. To this day I have never figured out how he was able to spend all those hours at the theater, during the school year, and still have good grades.
Because my job involved lots of travel, I never had the same give-and-take with Matt that Judy had. Our relationship at times was strained. But, whenever he had problems we talked. For example, he was unsure about revealing to me that he was gay. He was afraid that I would reject him immediately, so it took him a while to tell me. By that time, his mother and brother had already been told. One day he said that he had something to say. I could see that he was nervous, so I asked him if everything was all right. Matt took a deep breath and told me that he was gay. Then he waited for my reaction. I still remember his surprise when I said, “Yeah? OK, but what’s the point of this conversation?” Then everything was OK. We went back to a father and son who loved each other and respected the beliefs of the other. We were father and son, but we were also friends.
How do I talk about the loss that I feel every time I think about Matt? How can I describe the empty pit in my heart and mind when I think about all the problems that were put in Matt’s way that he overcame? No one can understand the sense of pride and accomplishment that I felt every time he reached the mountain top of another obstacle. No one, including myself, will ever know the frustration and agony that others put him through because he was different. How many people could be given the problems that Matt was presented with and still succeed as he did? How many would continue to smile—at least on the outside—while crying on the inside to keep other people from feeling bad?
I now feel very fortunate that I was able to spend some private time with Matt last summer during my vacation from Saudi Arabia. We sat and talked. I told Matt that he was my hero and that he was the toughest man that I had ever known. When I said that, I bowed down to him out of respect for his ability to continue to smile and keep a positive attitude during all the trials and tribulations that he had gone through. He just laughed. I also told him how proud I was because of what he had accomplished and what he was trying to accomplish. The last thing I said to Matt was that I loved him, and he said he loved me. That was the last private conversation that I ever had with him.
Impact on my life? My life will never be the same. I miss Matt terribly. I think about him all the time—at odd moments when some little thing reminds me of him; when I walk by the refrigerator and see the pictures of him and his brother that we’ve always kept on the door; at special times of the year, like the first day of classes at UW or opening day of sage chicken hunting. I keep wondering almost the same thing that I did when I first saw him in the hospital. What would we have become? How would he have changed his piece of the world to make it better?
Impact on my life? I feel a tremendous sense of guilt. Why wasn’t I there when he needed me most? Why didn’t I spend more time with him? Why didn’t I try to find another type of profession so that I could have been available to spend more time with him as he grew up? What could I have done to be a better father and friend? How do I get an answer to those questions now? The only one who can answer them is Matt. These questions will be with me for the rest of my life. What makes it worse for me is knowing that his mother and brother will have similar unanswered questions.
Impact on my life? In addition to losing my son, I lost my father on November 4, 1998. The stress of the entire affair was too much for him. Dad watched Matt grow up. He taught him how to hunt, fish, camp, ride horses, and love the state of Wyoming. Matt, Logan, dad, and I would spend two to three weeks camping in the mountains at different times of the year—to hunt, to fish, and to goof off. Matt learned to cook over an open fire, tell fishing stories about the one that got away, and to drive a truck from my father.
Three weeks before Matt went to the Fireside Bar for the last time, my parents saw Matt in Laramie. In addition, my father tried calling Matt the night that he was beaten but received no answer. He never got over the guilt of not trying earlier. The additional strain of the hospital vigil, being in the hospital room with Matt when he died, the funeral services with all the media attention and the protesters, [and] helping Judy and me clean out Matt’s apartment in Laramie a few days later was too much. Three weeks after Matt’s death, dad died. Dad told me after the funeral that he never expected to outlive Matt. The stress and the grief were just too much for him.
Impact on my life? How can my life ever be the same again?
When Matt was little, I used to take showers with him, just to teach him not to be scared of the water. Later, Matt helped me do the same thing with Logan. Anyway, Matt and I would be in the shower spitting mouthfuls of water at each other or at his mother, if he could convince her to come into the bathroom. Then he would laugh and laugh. We would also sing in the showers. I taught him the songs “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”; both “Brother John” and its French version, “Frère Jacques”; and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Matt would sing loud and clear. Now, that voice is silent, the boat has sunk, Jacques is no longer frère, and the little star no longer twinkles.
Matt officially died at 12:53 a.m. on Monday, October 12, 1998, in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. He actually died on the outskirts of Laramie tied to a fence that Wednesday before, when you beat him. You, Mr. McKinney, with your friend Mr. Henderson, killed my son.
By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark’s in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew’s in Laramie. He had God.
I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.
Matt became a symbol—some say a martyr, putting a boy-next-door face on hate crimes. That’s fine with me. Matt would be thrilled if his death would help others. On the other hand, your agreement to life without parole has taken yourself out of the spotlight and out of the public eye. It means no drawn-out appeals process, [no] chance of walking away free due to a technicality, and no chance of lighter sentence due to a “merciful” jury. Best of all, you won’t be a symbol. No years of publicity, no chance of communication, no nothing—just a miserable future and a more miserable end. It works for me.
My son was taught to look at all sides of an issue before making a decision or taking a stand. He learned this early when he helped campaign for various political candidates while in grade school and junior high. When he did take a stand, it was based on his best judgment. Such a stand cost him his life when he quietly let it be known that he was gay. He didn’t advertise it, but he didn’t back away from the issue either. For that I’ll always be proud of him. He showed me that he was a lot more courageous than most people, including myself. Matt knew that there were dangers to being gay, but he accepted that and wanted to just get on with his life and his ambition of helping others.
Matt’s beating, hospitalization, and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said “Enough is enough.” You screwed up, Mr. McKinney. You made the world realize that a person’s lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence. This is not the 1920s, 30s, and 40s of Nazi Germany. My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance. I can’t bring him back. But I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again. As I mentioned earlier, my son has become a symbol—a symbol against hate and people like you; a symbol for encouraging respect for individuality; for appreciating that someone is different; for tolerance. I miss my son, but I’m proud to be able to say that he is my son.
Mr. McKinney, one final comment before I sit, and this is the reason that I stand before you now. At no time since Matt was found at the fence and taken to the hospital have Judy and I made any statements about our beliefs concerning the death penalty. We felt that that would be an undue influence on any prospective juror. Judy has been quoted by some right-wing groups as being against the death penalty. It has been stated that Matt was against the death penalty. Both of these statements are wrong. We have held family discussions and talked about the death penalty. Matt believed that there were incidents and crimes that justified the death penalty. For example, he and I discussed the horrible death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas. It was his opinion that the death penalty should be sought and that no expense should be spared to bring those responsible for this murder to justice. Little did we know that the same response would come about involving Matt. I, too, believe in the death penalty. I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt. Mr. McKinney, I am not doing this because of your family. I am definitely not doing this because of the crass and unwarranted pressures put on by the religious community. If anything, that hardens my resolve to see you die. Mr. McKinney, I’m going to grant you life, as hard as that is for me to do, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. Every time that you see your cell mate, remember that you had a choice, and now you are living that choice. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that. 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.
Your honor, members of the jury, Mr. Rerucha, thank you.”