Pumpkins, corn stalks, and scarecrows are common autumn and Halloween decorations this time of the year. Fourteen years ago this afternoon, a passing cyclist saw what he thought was a scarecrow on this Laramie, Wyoming fence.
It wasn’t a scarecrow. It was the frail, comatose body of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Matthew had been robbed, pistol-whipped, tied to the fence for 18 hours, and left to die in 30° Wyoming weather. When he was found, he had fractures to the back of his head and to the front of his right ear. Matthew had brain stem damage so severe that doctors could not operate. He had a dozen or so cuts on his head, face, and neck.
Matthew never regained consciousness and was on full life support for days until he died in the early morning hours of October 12, 1998.
On the evening of October 6, 1998, Matthew was at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming, when he met Aaron McKinney (right) and Russell Henderson (left).
While drinking that evening, the two men came up with a plan to give Matthew a ride home and rob him. Kristen Price, girlfriend of McKinney, later testified that Henderson and McKinney “pretended they were gay to get [Shepard] in the truck and rob him.”
In the trial, the two men claimed that Matthew came on to them and they panicked and that’s when the crime moved from robbery to homicide. Media reports claim that Matthew was beaten so severely that when he was found, his face was covered in blood except where his tears partially washed away the blood.
Henderson (above) pleaded guilty in April 1999 and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty. He is now serving two consecutive life sentences.
McKinney was found guilty by a jury of felony murder. While the jury was deliberating the death penalty, Matthew’s parents negotiated a deal that would keep him from being put to death. In return, he would serve two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, have worked tirelessly to bring “hate crimes” front and center in America. In December 1998, they established the “Matthew Shepard Foundation” that supports diversity and tolerance in youth organizations.
Three years ago this month, President Barack Obama signed “The Matthew Shepard Act” into law, which added crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability to the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law.
Today, tomorrow, the next day, and every day after that, my heart goes out to Judy and Dennis Shepard and every parent that has watched their son or daughter die at the hands of some ignorant person or persons that were not man or woman enough to love their fellow-man or leave them well enough alone.
Matthew, on December 1, 2012, you should have been celebrating your 36th birthday. You should have had a chance to love and be in love, to be a parent, or to be anything you wanted to be.
I’m so sorry that the last thing you saw before you slipped into a coma was the darkness around Laramie, Wyoming that night or the sun rising that morning tied to a fence and left for dead.
Your courage to be you may have cost you your life, but you will not be forgotten and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re not forgotten.