Matthew Wayne “Matt” Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was an American student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6, 1998, and died six days later at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 12, from severe head injuries.
Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly after the attack and charged with murder following Shepard’s death. Significant media coverage was given to what role Shepard’s sexual orientation played in the killing. During McKinney’s pretrial and trial, testimony was given that the pair had pretended to be gay in order to gain Shepard’s trust in order to rob him. McKinney’s prosecutor argued the murder was premeditated and driven by greed, while McKinney’s defense counsel argued that McKinney had only intended to rob Shepard, but had killed him in a rage when Shepard made a sexual advance. McKinney’s girlfriend told police that he had been motivated by anti-gay sentiment, but later recanted her statement, saying that she had lied because she thought it would help him. Both McKinney and Henderson were convicted of the murder and each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Shepard’s murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. In October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly the “Matthew Shepard Act” or “Shepard/Byrd Act” for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law. Following her son’s murder, Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard became a prominent LGBT rights activist and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Shepard’s death inspired notable films, novels, plays, songs, and other works.
Hate crime legislation
During coverage of the incident, requests for new legislation addressing hate crimes gained currency. Under then United States federal law and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes.
Within hours of Shepard being discovered tied to the fence, Shepard’s friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout began to contact media organizations claiming Shepard had been assaulted because he was gay. According to prosecutor Cal Rerucha, “They were calling the County Attorney’s office, they were calling the media and indicating Matthew Shepard is gay and we don’t want the fact that he is gay to go unnoticed.” Tina Labrie, a close friend of Shepard’s, said “[Boulden and Trout] wanted to make [Matt] a poster child or something for their cause”. Boulden linked the attack to the absence of a Wyoming criminal statute providing for a hate crimes charge.
In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, however the measure failed on a 30–30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include homosexual individuals, women, and people with disabilities. The United States House of Representatives rejected these efforts in 1999.
On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Shepard’s parents attended the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007 (S. 1105), however then-President George W. Bush indicated he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The Democratic leadership dropped the amendment in response to opposition from conservative groups and Bush, and because the measure was attached to a defence bill there was a lack of support from antiwar Democrats.
On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, although it failed to pass. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said she was “still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed”. Pelosi planned to get the bill passed in early 2008 although she did not succeed. Following his election as President, Barack Obama stated that he was committed to passing the Act.
The U.S. House of Representatives debated expansion of hate crimes legislation on April 29, 2009. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the “hate crime” labeling of Shepard’s murder a “hoax”. Foxx later called her comments “a poor choice of words”.
The House passed the act, designated H.R. 1913, by a vote of 249 to 175. Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition introduced the bill in the Senate on April 28; it had 43 cosponsors as of June 17, 2009. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63–28 on July 15, 2009.
On October 22, 2009, the Senate passed the act by a vote of 68–29. President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.