"He was my son, my first born, but more,  he was my friend, my confidante, and constant reminder of how good life can be. At times I don't know how you'd be worthy of any acknowledgement of your existence. You murdered my son... I hope you never experience a day or night without experiencing
the terror, humiliation, hopelessness and helplessness my son felt that night."

Judy Shepard.

"My son was born blind. Not physically blind, but blind to people's differences - short or tall, black, brown or white, religion or ethnic backgrounds. His friends included gays and so-called straights."

Dennis Shepard

"Quite frankly, this court does not believe you feel a true remorse for your role in this matter. I wonder  whether you fully realise the gravity of what you've done, even as you stand here today.The pain you have caused here will never go away. Never. It will always be here.  You are deserving the fullest punishment this court can mete out."

Judge Donnell.

Judge Donnell told the court and the accused he was convinced that Matthew's sexual orientation played a role in his murder. In the sole reference the he made to Matthew being gay, Judge Donnell said the grisly crime was "part because of his lifestyle, part for a $20 robbery."

"It is my hope that Mr. Henderson will die in the Wyoming state penitentiary, and the only time he leaves the Wyoming state penitentiary is when they take him out to bury him."

State prosecutor Cal Rerucha

"The opportunity to be threatened, humiliated and to live in fear of being beaten to death is the only "special right" our culture bestows on homosexuals."

Diane Carman - Denver Post Columnist (Oct 98).

henderson.jpg (5354 bytes)

 

Russell Henderson convicted of the murder of Matthew Shepard

Monday, April 5, 1999.

 

 

There was a sudden end to the trial of Russell Arthur Henderson for the murder of Matthew Shepard when Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder and kidnapping. He was immediately sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole. By changing his plea, Henderson avoided a trial, and a possible death sentence. The defense had admitted, during jury selection, that Matthew's blood was on Henderson's jacket and that he drove the pickup truck into which Matthew was lured.

Henderson's public defender, Wyatt Skaggs, who had consistently maintained that "This was never a hate crime," had told prospective jurors that he'd intended to argue that although Henderson was present at the time of the murder, he did not take part in the vicious pistol-whipping that led to Matthew's death. Upon entering his guilty plea, Henderson admitted to driving the truck and helping to tie Matthew to the fence, but blamed his co-defendant Aaron McKinney for dealing the fatal blows.

According to prosecutors, McKinney and Henderson had manipulated Matthew into their truck by telling him they were gay themselves, only to pull a gun on him and begin the abuse that led to his death. They took his wallet containing $20 and his size-seven shoes and left him tied to a fence to die.

Henderson told the Court that he was sorry for what he had done. He begged the Shepard family for their forgiveness. Henderson's grandmother, Lucy Thompson, told the Shepards, "Our hearts ache. We are so sorry for the tragic loss of your son..You have showed us such mercy, and we are so grateful."

District court judge Jeffrey A. Donnell told Henderson, "You drove the vehicle, you  bound him to that fence in order that he might be more savagely beaten.  At the very least you stood by as he was struck again and again and again . You did nothing [in court] but concede your involvement." The murder of Matthew Shepard was "savage, brutal," Donnell told Henderson, "and lacking in respect for human life, regardless if [Matthew's life] was different from your own or not."

Henderson testified that Matthew's murder was just the result of a robbery which went wrong. He told for the first time how he and Aaron McKinney picked up Matthew last October 6 at a local bar. According to Henderson, McKinney came up with the plan to lure Matthew from the bar by posing as homosexuals so they could rob him. All three men left the bar in McKinney's pickup truck. Henderson drove. Henderson said McKinney pulled out a revolver and told Matthew to hand over his wallet. When Matthew refused, Henderson said, McKinney clubbed him with the revolver.

Henderson said McKinney "told me where to go, and I stopped when he said." He said they drove "out past Wal-Mart" and that McKinney kept beating Matthew. Then, Henderson said, McKinney "told me to get a rope out of the truck and tie" Shepard to a fence. Henderson said McKinney kept beating Matthew until "he looked pretty bad." He said that he had told McKinney to stop hitting him. Henderson said at that point, McKinney hit him in the face with the gun, and he returned to the truck, leaving McKinney alone with Matthew. McKinney returned to the truck with Matthew's shoes and wallet containing $20, and they drove off. Henderson acknowledged that other than his one plea to McKinney, he did nothing to stop the beating.  

matthews_parents.jpg (9621 bytes)Both of Matthew's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, attended the proceedings. Judy Shepard listened to Henderson's testimony as he described how McKinney beat her son. Dennis Shepard looked exhausted and grave and stared straight ahead during the entire proceeding.

When Henderson and his grandmother finished, Judy Shepard stepped up to the podium. In long, painful, and sometimes tearful testimony, she told the court how much she missed Matthew.

''He wasn't my son, my first born anymore,'' she said, recalling hugs and late-night talks. ''He was my friend, my confidante, my constant reminder of how good life can be.  I could never understand why anyone would do this to him because he was such a loving young man."

She spoke of her son's interest in theatre and world affairs and, without mentioning his homosexuality, said that he found "judging people before you know them to be a wasted opportunity."

She described the family's vigil at her son's bedside in Fort Collins and of Matthew's brother Logan's final goodbyes. "You have forever changed my family," she told Henderson. "There's a hole in my existence," she still vowed, "We won't allow you to kill our family."

The last time she has seen Matthew he was covered with bandages and wired with tubes in the hospital intensive care unit.

''One of his eyes was partially open,'' she recalled. ''I could see the clear blue of his eye. But the twinkle of his life wasn't there anymore.'' A touch to his arm meant to comfort provoked an involuntary spasm. "He began to shake and quiver," she said catching her breath at the memory, "such an act of cruelty was unthinkable."

Family members and friends joined hands over Matthew, she said, and prayed when he died.

Finally, she turned to Henderson: ``I hope you never experience another day or night without experiencing the terror, humiliation, the hopelessness and helplessness that my son felt that night.''

Dennis Shepard stood at the podium after his wife and, looking directly at Henderson, wondered aloud what kind of person it took to "watch someone get beaten to death and do nothing about it." He told him, "I have a hole in my life that I can never fill. When we eat dinner, there's a place set for Matt that we know will never again be filled by his laughter, his bad puns and his stories. Remember this for the rest of your life."

''My son was born blind,'' he said. ''Not physically blind, but blind to people's differences -- short or tall, black, brown or white, religion or ethnic backgrounds. His friends included gays and so-called straights.''

When the Shepards were through, Judge Donnell turned to sentencing. Henderson's attorneys had hoped for concurrent life sentences instead of consecutive, but Donnell was adamant. "The court does not believe you feel real remorse," he told Henderson. "This vile, senseless crime victimised Matthew, his family, your family, your community. You are not a victim, you are a perpetrator."

Court recessed after Albany County sheriffs escorted Henderson from the courthouse, and prosecutors and defense lawyers spoke to the press outside.

Earlier in the day,  the Rev. Fred Phelps and his bunch of homophobic bigots had been on hand to demonstrate their 'Christian' compassion. The group, from Topeka, Kansas, shouted their poisonous slogans and waved signs, including one that said ``God Hates Fags.'' Although University of Wyoming President Philip Dubois and Laramie Mayor Dave Williams had issued a joint letter to the community urging them to completely ignore what they called Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church's "message of hate," a group of students could not bear to let them go unanswered. Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew's -- and, like Matthew, Henderson and McKinney, 21 years old -- organised a group of about a dozen called "Angels of Peace." Standing silently, they used their white sheet "wings" to try to block the anti-gay demonstration from the view of television cameras.

During the trial, the only reference to Matthew's sexual orientation came when he was described as "different". Not gay or homosexual, but "different". We were asked to believe that this was not  a crime motivated by hatred. Surely, when his attackers savagely beat him about the head around 18 times with the butt of a .357 magnum, with such force and violence that his skull was compressed into his brain, they did not intend  to do him any harm. It was just a simple robbery.

Others might argue that the ferocity of the attack was an attempt to destroy Matthew's young life, and to wipe out any trace of his existence; and that it was motivated by a blinding hatred, precisely because Matthew was gay. What other explanation is there for such a brutal, senseless act? Who can believe that Matthew was beaten to death for $20 and a pair of shoes?

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