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Killer of Gay Student Is Spared Death Penalty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The parents of slain college student Matthew Shepard interceded to save the life of his killer, brokering an eleventh-hour deal that will send Aaron McKinney to prison for life while sparing him the death penalty.

As the sentencing phase of the murder trial in Laramie, Wyo., was about to begin Thursday morning, Judge Barton Voigt announced the deal: McKinney, 22, is to serve two consecutive life sentences, has no chance for parole and no opportunity to appeal.

Dennis Shepard read a lengthy, emotional statement in court Thursday, calling his 21-year-old gay son his hero and citing his special gift for helping people. As he spoke haltingly, pausing to wipe tears, many in the courtroom openly wept, including members of the jury.

Addressing McKinney, Shepard said: “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.”

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A jury had earlier convicted the former roofer of felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping in the October 1998 beating death of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student. McKinney and an accomplice, Russell Henderson, lured Shepard from a local bar, robbed him, beat him with the butt of a pistol and left him tied to a range fence on a wind-swept prairie. Shepard was not discovered for 18 hours, and he died days later in a Colorado hospital, having never regained consciousness.

In an almost identical plea bargain, Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and was sentenced in April to two life terms.

With his jailhouse pallor and a military-style haircut, McKinney remained impassive through much of the trial. He did not testify in the weeklong trial. On Thursday, he spoke for the first time, facing Dennis and Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother.

“I don’t know what to say other than I am sorry to the entire Shepard family. There won’t be a day that goes by that I won’t be ashamed for what I did,” McKinney told the court.

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The brutal murder of the wholesome-looking Shepard struck a chord across America. It spurred calls for the enactment of hate crime legislation, calls that Dennis Shepard repeated on Thursday.

At the Shepards’ request, defense attorneys did not speak with reporters, but prosecuting attorney Cal Rerucha did, blasting the defense’s short-lived “gay panic” strategy. The defense tactic, which the judge disallowed, argued that an alleged sexual advance by Shepard triggered memories of McKinney’s childhood sexual abuse and caused him to fly into an uncontrolled rage, fueled by drugs and alcohol.

“The defense is atrocious,” Rerucha said outside the courthouse. “It should not be used in any court in these United States. It gives people an excuse to harm another person.”

The acrimony over the defense strategy, which appeared to blame Shepard for his own murder, caused a rift between the opposing attorneys in the case. When the defense sought to negotiate a plea bargain Wednesday afternoon, it was the Shepards who worked out the details with defense attorneys.

Rerucha had reservations about the deal, but finally it was Matthew’s mother who prevailed upon him to agree to spare McKinney’s life.

“I will never get over Judy Shepard’s capacity to forgive,” Rerucha said.

The trial had been watched closely around the country. The White House issued a statement from President Clinton that praised the outcome.

“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,” he said. “We cannot surrender to those on the fringe of our society who lash out at those who are different.”

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For gay rights groups, the outcome affirmed the ability of homosexuals to achieve justice.

“Gay and lesbian Americans can now have renewed faith in our justice system,” said David M. Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights lobbying group. “We can only hope a strong message was sent, that in America hate crimes will not be tolerated and there are severe consequences for violent, hateful actions.”

Another gay rights group, which strongly opposes the death penalty, was relieved.

“It was a very bittersweet victory over a possible violent end in execution,” said William K. Dobbs of the New York Queerwatch. “This was a brutal, ugly murder, but in this case the death penalty loomed as a lever to extract this sentence.”

Many legal experts said that McKinney’s negotiated sentence was identical to what the jury would have decided. The decision Wednesday to convict McKinney of second-degree murder--rejecting the prosecution’s assertion of premeditation--signaled the jurors’ reluctance to invoke the death penalty, experts said.

For the citizens of Wyoming, who have often felt that their state’s Western philosophies were on trial, the end of the yearlong ordeal was welcome.

“This is not a redneck state,” said Gerry Gallivan, a former law professor at the University of Wyoming. “People here resent the national publicity, but they say, ‘What do you expect from New York and L.A.?’ ”

Dennis Shepard, who is a Wyoming native, thanked the jury and said their work made a statement about courage and tolerance.

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“That statement is that Wyoming is the equality state, that Wyoming will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation, that violence is not the solution. Ladies and gentlemen, you have the respect and admiration of Matthew’s family and friends and of countless strangers around the world. Be proud of what you accomplished. You may have prevented another family from losing a son or a daughter.”


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