Man convicted in gay student’s slaying, could face the death penalty
LARAMIE, Wyo. – A 22-year-old man was convicted of murder Wednesday in the beating of gay college student Matthew Shepard and could get the death penalty after a trial in which the defense portrayed Shepard as a sexual aggressor.
The jury returns Thursday to begin hearing evidence in the sentencing phase for Aaron McKinney, a roofer and high school dropout who was one of two men arrested in the slaying of the University of Wyoming student.
If jurors do not vote unanimously for death, McKinney will receive life in prison, and the judge cannot alter the sentence.
Shepard was lured last year from a bar, lashed to a fence, bludgeoned in the head with a pistol and left to die on the cold prairie in a case whose brutality led to demands for hate-crime laws across the country.
The other man arrested, 22-year-old Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty in April to kidnapping and murder and is serving two life sentences.
The jury deliberated for 10 hours over two days.
As the jury was about to announce its verdict, McKinney stood impassively next to his lawyers, clasping his hands in front of him. When the first verdict was read – guilty of kidnapping – he moved his arms to his sides. His father, William, looked straight ahead with no emotion.
Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy, held hands and looked ahead, expressionless. Neither McKinney’s father nor the Shepards would comment. The lawyers on both sides are prohibited from commenting by a gag order.
President Clinton issued a statement praising the jurors’ decision.
”This verdict is a dramatic statement that we are determined to have a tolerant law-abiding nation that celebrates our differences, rather than deepening them,” Clinton said. ”We cannot surrender to those on the fringe of our society who lash out at those who are different.”
McKinney’s lawyers had sought to use a ”gay panic” defense based on the theory that some men are prone to an uncontrollable, violent reaction when propositioned by a homosexual.
They argued that McKinney flew into a drug-influenced rage after Shepard grabbed his crotch while the two rode in a pickup truck. The defense claimed that the alleged advance triggered memories for McKinney of a childhood homosexual assault.
District Judge Barton Voigt, however, disallowed the ”gay panic” defense, ruling that it was similar to temporary insanity or a diminished-capacity defense – both of which are prohibited under Wyoming law.
As a result, the defense called just seven witnesses, including two men who testified that Shepard made unwelcome advances toward them, but were not allowed to call experts to discuss McKinney’s mental state.
The jury convicted McKinney of felony murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery. It rejected a first-degree premeditated murder charge that said McKinney had planned the attack.
Under Wyoming law, a defendant can get the death penalty if a slaying occurs during the commission of another felony, such as kidnapping.
Jeffrey Montgomery, director of the gay rights group Triangle Foundation, said the outcome indicates the defense was successful in convincing jurors of the ”gay panic” theory.
”It struck a chord in some of the jury where they could have some level of understanding that that kind of provocation would result in that kind of reaction – a violent outburst of anger,” he said.
But David M. Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group, called the verdict ”a repudiation of that strategy.”
Prosecutors said McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard of $20. Shepard, his skull cracked, died in a hospital five days after the beating. Investigators said the robbery was the primary motive but that the slightly built Shepard also was singled out because he was gay.
The slaying led to vigils around the country and demands for laws protecting homosexuals from such crimes.
Bill Dobbs, a gay lawyer and civil rights advocate, said he is dreading the penalty phase.
”This may be the close of one chapter in the Matthew Shepard case,” he said, ”but a second, very ugly chapter looms: the possible execution of Aaron McKinney.”