The murder of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, received unprecedented media coverage and became a catalyst for hate crime reform in the United States. Shepard, 21, was strongly involved in his community and became a prominent activist for LGBT student groups on campus. On October 6, 1998 Shepard was coerced by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson from a local bar in Laramie, Wyoming under the false notions that McKinney and Henderson were also gay.
The men drove Shepard to a secluded area where they disclosed to Shepard that they were going to rob him. In doing so McKinney and Henderson proceeded to beat Shepard with a pistol and punch him numerous times. Then McKinney and Henderson tied Shepard up to a buck rail fence and continued to assault him. Shepard remained tied to the fence in freezing conditions for over 18 hours and was eventually found by cyclist Aaron Kreifels who had mistaken him for a scarecrow. The injuries Shepard suffered caused severe damage to his brain stem and he was transported to Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, Colorado, 65 miles away.
Shepard remained in a coma for four days. As his parents made their way to Poudre Valley Hospital countless individuals and distinguished guests such as President Bill Clinton gathered outside. Within 36 hours, knowledge of the incident and vigil reached national headlines and the story of Matthew Shepard began a dialogue regarding hate crimes and LGBT equality. On October 12, Shepard succumbed to his injuries.
McKinney and Henderson were charged with murder and kidnapping, with judicial proceedings against the two men commencing in April of the following year. They were both eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
As a result of their tragedy, Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s parents, created the Matthew Shepard Foundation as a way for like-minded individuals to come together and advocate for hate crime reform and send their condolences to the Shepard family. The Foundation also serves as an outlet for struggling LGBT individuals to share their stories. In addition to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 which allows federal authorities to prosecute individuals who commit crimes based on a victim’s race, gender, religion, or sexual preference.
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