The Trial

Wyoming vs. Russell Arthur Henderson

"Mr. Henderson, you have created hell on earth--for a family, for our community, for the state." -Cal Rerucha, Albany County Attorney.

At times, I don't think you are worthy of addressing.  We won't allow you to kill our family. -Matthew Shepard's Mother

On April 5, 1999 in the Alban
y County Courthouse, twenty one year old Russell Arthur Henderson plead guilty to kidnapping and murder, and was sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences in jail.  The court room was packed and filled with emotion and drama.  Henderson turned on his friend, Aaron McKinney, and claimed that he in fact was the mastermind behind the incident.  He stated that during the murder, "Matthew looked really bad, I told him to stop", and claimed, ''Mr. McKinney hit me above the mouth. I returned to the pickup truck".  He addressed the Shepard family, solemnly saying, "Mr. and Mrs. Shepard, there is not a moment that doesn't go by that I don't see what happened that night", "I  am ready to pay for what I did".

Henderson was sentenced by District Judge Jeffery A. Donnell and escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty for a killing that was "part because of [Shepard's] life style, part for a $20 robbery".  Even though Henderson's family pleaded Judge Donnell for concurrent life sentences and thanked the Shepard family for their mercy, the Judge turned to Henderson and said, "the court does not believe you feel any remorse in this matter", and sentenced him to two consecutive terms.

Mr. Skaggs, Russell Henderson's lawyer, insisted that Matthew was not a target merely because he was gay, and that "this crime has never been a hate crime".  He is currently serving out his sentences in prison without possibility of parole.

Wyoming vs. Aaron James McKinney

"I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney, but now is the time to begin the healing process. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember Matthew isn't. Every time you wake up in that prison cell, remember you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. " -Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard's father at Aaron McKinney's trial.
(A full transcript of Dennis Shepard's speech can be found here.)

On November 4th, 1999, Aaron James McKinney was convicted of second-degree murder.  He was also found guilty for robbery and kidnapping, and therefore was eligible for the death penalty.  In the spring, he pleaded guilty to these counts and was sentenced

Over the seven-day trial, prosecutors tried to convince the jury that McKinney had intended to kill Shepard from the start.  The jury rejected the idea that McKinney intended to kill Shepard therefore he avoided getting charged with first-degree murder and automatically ending up on death row.

McKinney's lawyers were denied use of the defense of "gay panic" by Judge Barton Voigt, which implied that Shepard’s supposed sexual advances sparked a reaction to McKinney's fear of homosexuals.  Instead, his defense lawyers claimed that he had suffered a “five minute emotional rage” and was under the influence of alcohol and drugs.   They argued that his poor past brought him to do drugs and drink, and put emphasis on the fact that he had been molested when he was seven by an older boy.  McKinney also had a consensual sexual encounter with a male cousin.

The parents of Matthew Shepard, Dennis and Judy, consulted with prosecutors and decided to spare McKinney of the death penalty.  Dennis Shepard gave an eloquent and touching speech about his son and why they decided to spare their son’s killer.  Mr. Shepard said, with tears in his eyes, “this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy”.  The parents stated that they did not organize the deal earlier because they wanted to make sure there was a trial.  They believed that a trial was needed so the public fully knew that it was a hate crime, and not a robbery.

To the court, McKinney responded, “I really don't know what to say other than I'm truly sorry to the entire Shepard family”.

Although this case is considered a hate crime, Wyoming does not have this designation.  In general, gay and lesbian rights groups agreed with the sentence and said they hoped that there was a strong message sent.