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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 11 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 41
Matthew Shepard, 15 years late - How his parents are keeping his memory alive - and creating a better world
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Matthew Shepard, 15 years late - How his parents are keeping his memory alive - and creating a better world

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Dennis Shepard. That's not a name that is as common in households across the nation as Matthew Shepard. In fact, his wife, Judy Shepard, is better known for the couple's advocacy work on hate crimes legislation and for serving as executive director at the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Dennis, of course, is Matthew's father.

Recently, Dennis received an inquiry from a cast member of The Laramie Project (a well-known theater piece inspired by the murder and how it impacted Laramie, Wyoming) in Amsterdam, who asked him about how speaking to the court before the sentencing of one of Matthew's murderers made him feel. Dennis recalled he felt 'anger because the murderers had the opinion that they would not be arrested because it was just a 'fag' that they killed.'

'They believed that no one in law enforcement cared if a member of the Gay community was robbed, beaten, or murdered,' said Dennis. 'Fortunately, they were wrong.'

THE 'SCARECROW'
Fifteen years ago this week, on October 12, 1998, Dennis and Judy lost their son to hate. Matthew Shepard died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, from severe head injuries he sustained from an anti-Gay attack on the night of October 6-7. He was just 21 years old.

His attack and death changed the national conversation about hate crime, which had, until then, been something of a phantom phrase. And as strange as it might now seem, before 1998, most Americans had never spoken the words 'hate' and 'crime' together.

Regardless of how people felt about this (somewhat) new concept, or whether or not they would support hate-crime legislation at the state or federal level that included sexual orientation and gender identity, most people believed that what Matthew endured was horrific. His murder put Laramie on the map, but for reasons the townsfolk were resentful of: Gay bashing.

After all, this kind of thing isn't supposed to happen 'around here,' the citizens of Laramie said over and over again to the media. It's as if they thought that somehow, by repeating those words, paired with the phrase 'live and let live,' the nightmare would somehow go away. Of course, it never did. And some would argue that it never will.

There's no denying it. Matthew Shepard's robbery-turned-murder was every bit as horrific as one could imagine. Perhaps the mystery that (still) surrounds the case is what had driven so many to pay attention to the news reports about Matthew's condition when he was on life support and to tune in during the trial that resulted in the conviction of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.

THE TRIAL
So much of the evidence, statements made by the defendants, and more has been contested by the folks who knew Shepard, McKinney, and Henderson that nobody really can say they've got a handle on why such a terrible crime took place. What is known is that Shepard met McKinney and Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. It was decided that McKinney and Henderson would give Shepard a ride home, but instead they drove the car to a remote, rural area and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tying him to a fence and leaving him to die.

According to their court testimony, his attackers also discovered Shepard's address and intended to steal from his home.

Matthew, still tied to the fence, alive but in a coma, was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. He had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear as well as severe brainstem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Matthew never regained consciousness and remained on full life support, with no way of knowing that while he lay in intensive care, candlelight vigils were held around the world by people who hoped and prayed he would somehow make it and that justice would be delivered to the Shepard family.

Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly after the attack. The bloody gun and Matthew's shoes and wallet were found in the back of the truck they used to drive Matthew to that awful place that night. Henderson and McKinney unsuccessfully tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them. During the trial, Kristen Price, McKinney's girlfriend at the time of the murder, testified that Henderson and McKinney had 'pretended they were Gay to get [Shepard] in the truck and rob him.' McKinney and Henderson went to the Fireside Lounge and selected Shepard after he arrived. McKinney alleged that Shepard asked them for a ride home.

Price's testimony was crucial for the prosecution of the case. The Shepards' lawyers alleged that McKinney and Henderson had pretended to be Gay in order to gain Matthew's trust, so he would leave the bar with them.

At trial, McKinney offered various excuses in an attempt to justify his actions. He originally pleaded the so-called Gay panic defense, arguing that he and Henderson were driven to temporary insanity by Matthew's alleged sexual advances. At another point, McKinney's lawyer stated that they had wanted to rob Shepard but never intended to kill him.

What neither McKinney nor Henderson denies is that they took him to a remote area outside of Laramie where they robbed him, assaulted him severely, and tied him to a fence with a rope from McKinney's truck while Matthew pleaded for his life. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears.

In another important win for the prosecution, McKinney and Henderson's girlfriends testified that neither of the accused was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the attack.

THE OUTCOME: GUILTY
Regardless of the courtroom drama that unfolded during the trial, the fact remains that McKinney and Henderson did commit the crime of which they were convicted - felony murder. Henderson pleaded guilty on April 5, 1999 and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. The jury in McKinney's trial found him guilty of felony murder. As they began to deliberate on the death penalty, Dennis and Judy Shepard brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.

The world watched the case unfold on cable news networks, read about it in the news, and talked about it in classrooms, homes, and at work. The conversation - the most important piece of any movement to change hearts and minds - had begun. The world was introduced to Dennis and Judy Shepard, Matt's parents. Fortunately, it wouldn't be the last time we would hear from them.

THE FOUNDATION
Dennis and Judy are co-founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and advocate for LGBT rights. Created to honor Matthew in a manner appropriate to his dreams, beliefs, and aspirations, Judy and Dennis say the foundation seeks to 'Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion, and Acceptance' through its varied educational, outreach, and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew's story.

Although Judy, who personifies the saying 'Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned,' became the 'face' of the foundation, Dennis has always played a very active and vital role. However, he is more comfortable working behind the scenes. Judy, on the other hand, has been a very visible leader in the fight for hate-crime legislation.

Judy became a New York Times bestselling author in 2009 when she shared her memories of Matt in her book, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. Schools across the country use the book to talk about diversity and inclusion.

Judy Shepard has spoken to more than a million people worldwide, including addressing the United Nations and a hate-crimes conference at the Polish Parliament. She has spoken more than 65 times to faith communities or on campuses of religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Even Notre Dame, a very conservative Catholic school with a controversial history regarding LGBT students, has hosted Judy twice.

For the Matthew Shepard Foundation, making The Laramie Project plays an educational experience and not just an evening of theater has been a cornerstone of the program from the beginning. Since the February 2000 premiere of The Laramie Project in Denver, the foundation has worked with countless productions of the play in theaters large and small, from high schools and universities to community, regional, and professional theaters.

Dennis and Judy created Matthew's Place, a website for LGBT and allied youth to access resources about living happy and healthy lives. MatthewsPlace.com has grown into a vibrant community where young people around the world share their own personal stories in the hope that they could inspire others' lives.

'Someday, we hope the Foundation can quietly go away,' say the Shepards in a statement on the foundation's website, 'but unfortunately, that's not today.'

They report that 70% of LGBT youth report being bullied or harassed in school. 'Most Americans still don't understand how bad it can be for youth who are struggling to embrace their own identity at a time when they see hate around them.'

THE SHEPARD ACT
Although their son's killers were sentenced to prison, many would argue that more than ten years would pass before Dennis, Judy (and Matt) finally saw justice.

The Shepards worked tirelessly to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009.

'This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade,' President Obama said before signing the act into law. 'Time and again, we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed. Time and again we've been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in which we're all free to live and love as we see fit. But the cause endured and the struggle continued, waged by the family of Matthew Shepard, by the family of James Byrd, by folks who held vigils and led marches, by those who rallied and organized and refused to give up, by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who fought so hard for this legislation, and all who toiled for years to reach this day.'

In the fall of 2012, Judy and Dennis Shepard, at the request of the State Department, went on a five-country tour of Central and Eastern Europe. During the tour, Judy and Dennis met with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia; U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee A. Feinstein; Viktors Makarovs, the Latvian Foreign Ministry's parliamentary secretary; and with parents of LGBTs, LGBT youth, and classrooms full of students.

LOOKING BACK
Fifteen years after Shepard's death, because one of the actors from an upcoming production of The Laramie Project had reached out to him, Dennis Shepard challenged himself to put into words the importance of that moment when he addressed the judge and jury during the trial to convict the men who murdered his son.

'How did I feel in the courtroom that day? Well, first of all, I felt exhausted,' Dennis said. 'I flew in from Saudi Arabia the night before the case was to be given over to the jury for a decision. With the 10-hour time difference plus working all day and flying out late that night, I was up about 50 hours without sleep (have never been able to sleep on a plane, especially in economy class). Got to bed late that night and then I got up about four in the morning and wrote my court statement, the one that you'll be quoting from.'

In the courtroom, Dennis says he felt incredible emotions. 'First of all, extreme anger that my son had been murdered just because he was considered different. Angry because the two murderers, who had never met Matt before, chose him because he was small, well-dressed, and 'looked' Gay. Angry because they decided to be judge, jury, and executioners without having any right to do so,' he said.

'I also felt extreme loneliness because I'd never get to see or talk to Matt again,' said Dennis. 'Never argue with him, never see his smile and twinkling eyes as he harassed me about something I'd done or said. Never discuss politics or go fishing with him again. Never play games with him, his mother, and his brother.'

Dennis said he also felt a great amount survivor's guilt because he was alive and Matthew was not. 'Children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around,' he said.

'Even worse was the guilt I felt because I wasn't there that night to protect my son ... to get him away from that fence, to protect him, to hug him, and tell him that everything would be OK,' said Dennis. 'Ever since it happened, I've wondered if he called out to me to protect him while he was being beaten. I'll never know.

'It made for an extremely emotional time for me when I got up to speak and read my statement,' he continued. 'It was easy to ignore the defendant. I just focused on the jury and the judge.'

'I focused on not breaking into tears. I focused on making Matt proud of me one more time,' said Dennis. 'As proud of me as I was of him. I focused on telling everyone about what made my smart, good-looking, caring son so special and to let the world know that it was a loss for everyone, everywhere.'

THE STATEMENT
According to transcripts from the court, Dennis Shepard said in his statement, 'My son - a gentle, caring soul - proved that he was as tough as, if not tougher than, anyone I have ever heard of or known. On October 6, 1998, my son tried to show the world that he could win again. On October 12, 1998, my first-born son - and my hero - lost. On October 12, my first-born son - and my hero - died 50 days before his 22nd birthday. He died quietly, surrounded by family and friends, with his mother and brother holding his hand. All that I have left now are the memories.

'It's hard to put into words how much Matt meant to family and friends and how much they meant to him. Everyone wanted him to succeed because he tried so hard. The spark that he provided to people had to be experienced. He simply made everyone feel better about themselves. Family and friends were his focus. He knew that he always had their support for anything that he wanted to try.

'Matt's gift was people. He loved being with people, helping people, and making others feel good. The hope of a better world free of harassment and discrimination because a person was different kept him motivated. All his life he felt the stabs of discrimination. Because of that he was sensitive to other people's feelings. He was naive to the extent that, regardless of the wrongs people did to him, he still had faith that they would change and become 'nice.' Matt trusted people, perhaps too much. Violence was not a part of his life until his senior year in high school. He would walk into a fight and try to break it up. He was the perfect negotiator. He could get two people talking to each other again as no one else could.

'Matt loved people and he trusted them. He could never understand how one person could hurt another, physically or verbally. They would hurt him, and he would give them another chance. This quality of seeing only good gave him friends around the world. He didn't see size, race, intelligence, sex, religion, or the hundred other things that people use to make choices about people. All he saw was the person. All he wanted was to make another person his friend. All he wanted was to make another person feel good. All he wanted was to be accepted as an equal.'

Dennis ends his letter to the actor by challenging him to do something that he believed would make a profound impact on him. 'In order to get the full flavor of the [court] statement, I recommend that you find and print the statement to the court (if you haven't done so already), and read it out loud in front of a mirror. However, instead of using Matt's name, I want you to substitute the name of a family member, such as a brother, sister, cousin, or perhaps a close friend. Imagine that you are reading this statement to the jury about that person. I think it will make it more realistic and meaningful to you.'

Dennis wished the actor 'good luck with the play production' and said, 'I know you and the rest of the cast and crew will do a fine job.'

'It will change you, the audience, and everyone connected to it,' said Dennis. 'Please extend a warm hello to all of them from Judy and me.'

STOP THE HATE
A lot has changed since the world first learned of Matthew Shepard. Fifteen years is a long time and aside from the passage of the hate-crime legislation, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' the U.S. military's failed policy on Gay and Lesbian servicemembers, was repealed in December 2010 and a new policy of inclusion was implemented in September of the following year. Marriage equality is marching across the nation. One by one the hypothetical 'dominos' that leaders in the Gay rights movement have been talking about aren't so hypothetical anymore. It's happening. We are winning. But, as is the case with Matthew Shepard, our victories have not come without a price.

Each year in the U.S., the number of reported hate crimes has increased. Officials say the number is on the rise mainly because victims feel safer to report the crime, as more and more people become accepting of the LGBT community, but I think we can all agree that one such incident is one too many.

In 2004, the FBI reported that 15.6% of hate crimes reported to police were founded on perceived sexual orientation. Sixty-one percent of those attacks were against Gay men, 14% against Lesbians, 2% against heterosexuals, and 1% against Bisexuals, while attacks against LGBT people at large made up 20%. Violence based on perceived gender identity was not recorded in the report.

The FBI reported that for 2006, hate crimes against Gays increased to 16% from 14% in 2005, as a percentage of total documented hate crimes across the U.S. The 2006 annual report, released on November 19, 2007, also said that hate crimes based on sexual orientation are the third most common type, behind race and religion.

In 2008, 17.6% of hate crimes were based on the victim's perceived sexual orientation. Of those crimes, 72.23% were violent in nature. Racial bias accounted for 4,704 crimes, and 1,617 were committed due to sexual orientation. Of these, only one murder and one forcible rape were committed due to racial bias, whereas five murders and six rapes were committed based on sexual orientation.

In 2011, the FBI reported 1,572 hate crime victims targeted based on a sexual orientation bias, making up 20.4% of the total hate crimes for that year. Of the total victims, 56.7% were targeted based on anti-male homosexual bias, 29.6% were targeted based on anti-homosexual bias, and 11.1% were targeted based on anti-female homosexual bias.

Currently, the number of attacks against Gays is on the rise in New York City, with 68 reported anti-Gay incidents this year, 41 of which were assaults and six of which were felonies. That's double the previous year's total.

And even though Seattle was just named the number-one city for same-sex couples to live in the nation, anti-Gay attacks have increased in our very own neighborhood of Capitol Hill.

WHAT'S THE MOTIVE?
UCLA psychologist Dr. Edward Dunbar is examining from a clinical and forensic perspective what drives hate-crime perpetrators. With a team of graduate students, he's spent countless hours at the Los Angeles Police Department profiling about 550 perps, examining such factors as motivation, childhood histories, and levels of pathology.

Those who commit hate crimes are not mentally ill in the traditional sense - they're not diagnosably schizophrenic or bipolar, Dunbar is finding. What they do share, however, is a high level of aggression and antisocial behavior.

'These people are not psychotic, but they're consistently very troubled, very disturbed, very problematic members of our community who pose a huge risk for future violence,' Dunbar notes. Childhood histories of these offenders show high levels of parental or caretaker abuse and use of violence to solve family problems, he adds.

People who commit bias crimes are also more likely to deliberate on and plan their attacks than those who commit more spontaneous crimes, Dunbar says.

Gay-bashers, for instance, commute long distances to pursue their victims in spots they're likely to find them, suggesting a strong premeditative component to these crimes. In addition, those who commit hate crimes show a history of such actions, beginning with smaller incidents and moving up to more serious ones, Dunbar notes.

There is still a lot to be done to keep LGBT people safe from attacks like the one Matthew Shepard died from. But nobody can deny the power of his story and the bravery that Dennis and Judy have displayed over the years. It is important to note that whenever anyone is murdered they are survived by someone. In this case, Dennis and Judy were left to pick up the pieces. Not only did they do that, but they also set out to change the world and how we view hate crimes, anti-Gay attacks, and more.

Matthew Shepard, like the Stonewall Uprising, has gone down in history as a critical point in our movement for full equality. But the true heroes out of this tragedy are Dennis and Judy. They display resilience, excellence, and the willingness to change peoples' views on hate crimes and the LGBT community, and to demonstrate compassion whenever they get the chance. Dennis is right - parents aren't supposed to bury their kids. But they had to. And instead of curling up in a ball and wishing they were dead themselves, they got to work and developed the Matthew Shepard Foundation into one of the best-known and most visited LGBT resource websites today. The legacy that Matt left us continues to grow under the leadership and care of Dennis and Judy Shepard.

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