Gays target murder trial town

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THE SMALL college town of Laramie, Wyoming, switched into a tense mini-citadel yesterday, packed with police patrols, security barriers and gay rights activists, for the trial of a man accused of beating Matthew Shepard, a young gay student, and leaving him to die, tied to a freezing fence-post.

The prosecution says Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney lured 21- year-old Shepard from the Fireside Bar in Laramie last October, pistol- whipped him then bound him to the fence miles out of town. Their girlfriends were with them. Shepard was found in a coma 18 hours later and died in hospital.

Henderson's trial starts with the jury-picking today and McKinney is being tried in August. They have already told police they pretended to be gay so they could leave the bar with Shepard and rob him. They stole his credit card, $20 and his patent leather shoes - supposedly to make sure he could not easily get back to town.

The defendants, high-school drop-outs who worked as roof repairers, are accused of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery. They face the death sentence if found guilty.

Their girlfriends, who were with them throughout Shepard's ordeal, are charged with being accessories and one has already pleaded guilty.

The trial, like the murder itself, is proving traumatic for the small prairie home of the University of Wyoming - raising questions about tolerance towards minorities in rural western communities with little or no reported crime, and about the resentment that exists between the town and the student body.

Gay activists plan to march in memory of Matthew Shepard this weekend in towns all over Wyoming including Laramie and the state capital, Caspar, where Shepard's parents live. On Tuesday, Shepard's mother was in Washington, lobbying Congress to pass specific hate crime legislation recognising the peculiar savagery of what happened to her son.

"There is no guarantee these laws will stop hate crimes from happening," Judy Shepard said. "But they can reduce them. They can help change the climate in this country, where some people feel it is OK to target specific groups of people and get away with it."

Jury selection is expected to take two weeks and lawyers say this will be difficult in a town where the crime has had so much publicity.

Little more is known about the possible motives for the killing. But evidence has emerged since the murder, pointing to strange coincidences in the lives of the victim and the two accused. McKinney was admitted to the same hospital as Shepard in Fort Collins, Colorado, after he was hit over the head in a fight - apparently while he and Henderson were trying to break into Shepard's apartment.

Two months after the attack Henderson's mother stumbled out of a Laramie bar and was found frozen to death miles away on a country road. And Henderson's girlfriend, Chastity Pasley, was a first-year art student at the University of Wyoming whose on-campus jobs included secretarial work for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Student Association. Shepard was a member of her association.