Shepard’s death gained national coverage in the United States, and pushed public sentiment in support of new legislation to address hate crimes in the country — a process that took many years to become federal law.
On the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, here is a look back at what happened, and what has happened since.
Shepard, a gay man, was killed after meeting up with the two men who would eventually murder him, Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Colorado.
Each man was in their early twenties, and Shepard was almost 22.
The three left that establishment together, and McKinney and Henderson proceeded to pistol-whip, rob, and torture Shepard before tying him to a fence and leaving the victim there to die.
McKinney and Henderson then returned to town, where they got into a fight with two young men, which resulted in a head wound for McKinney and one of the young men. Police then came along, and found Shepard’s credit card and shoes — alongside a blood-smeared gun — in McKinney’s truck.
Shepard’s comatose body was found 18 hours after the attack by a cyclist. A responding officer was forced to clear Shepard’s mouth of blood with bare hands, as they had faulty gloves for protection. The officer later found out that Shepard had HIV, but the officer luckily did not contract the virus.
Shepard, who was covered in blood when he was found, had fractures in the back of his head and near his right ear, and heavy damage to his brainstem. He was pronounced dead on October 12.
McKinney and Henderson were both arrested, and ultimately charged with first-degree murder. Their girlfriends — Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley — were later charged as being accessories after the fact.
During the trials, witnesses and officers at the scene testified that McKinney had been thrown into a rage when Shepard had touched his knee, but that the murder had not been pre-planned. The two men had allegedly pretended to be gay in order to lure Shepard into their truck.
A jury found McKinney not guilty to premeditated murder, but guilty to felony murder. As his sentence was being deliberated, Shepard’s family helped push a deal to give him two consecutive life sentences instead of the death penalty.
Prior to McKinney’s trial, Henderson had pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping. In order to avoid the death penalty, he agreed to testify against McKinney.
Pasley and Price both pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder and misdemeanour interference with a police officer, respectively.
Shepard’s brutal murder drew calls for more extensive hate crime laws, particularly because the attack was perceived as one primarily motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. At the time, crimes committed because of sexuality were not prosecutable as hate crimes.
A bill to make such attacks hate crimes in Wyoming ultimately failed in the statehouse, and efforts to pass similar lawsuit the federal level stalled out for years — in part because the law was often tied to defense funding — until 2009, when the Matthew Shepard Act was signed into law by former President Barack Obama, effectively extending hate crime protections to include homosexuals.
Gay rights in now
Civil rights for homosexuals in the United States have made some marked progress in the past 20 years.
In addition to the eventual passing of the Matthew Shepard Act, gay rights activists have worked to and secured the right for homosexuals to marry in the US. The Supreme Court ensured that right in 2015.
That said, the rights of gay people in America are continually under attack in US courts. That has included efforts to undermine those laws by arguing that businesses are not required to provide certain services for gay marriages, for instance.
Conversion therapy is also still legal in much of the United States, with just 14 states out of all 50 banning conversation therapy for minors.
LGBT and transgender rights also vary widely by state, too. In some states, for instance, there is rampant bullying and discrimination for LGBT or transgender youth in schools, and the state bars individuals from changing the name or gender marker on their education. Healthcare rights vary by state, as do protections against being unfairly fired, evicted, or kicked out of public places based for being transgender. Same sex couples in some states encounter significant difficulties in the adoption process, or for acquiring health insurance access for a spouse. A breakdown of state laws in America based on those factors, compiled by LGBT Map, can be found here for transgender rights and here for LGBTQ rights.
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