Left on a Fence

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Left on a Fence

Magazine article

By: Anonymous

Date: October 17, 1998

Source: Anonymous. "Left on a Fence." The Economist 349, no. 8090 (October 17, 1998).

About the Author: The article was written by an anonymous staff writer for the British magazine The Economist.


The brutal 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming shocked the United States and prompted calls to add sexual orientation to hate crimes legislation. While Shepard was not the first or last homosexual to be killed because of his sexual orientation, the sheer ugliness of the crime made him the poster child for the gay rights movement.

Shepard (1977–1998), a slightly built blond who stood only 5 feet, 2 inches tall, had traveled the world with his father, who worked in the oil business. Educated in Switzerland and Denver, he spoke English, German, Italian, and some Arabic. He attended Casper (Wyoming) Junior College before transferring to the University of Wyoming in Laramie in the fall of 1998 as a political science major. Shepard had worried about how his homosexuality would be perceived at the university and was hesitant to tell others that he was gay.

He was lured from a campus bar on October 6, 1998, by two men who told him they were gay. He was then robbed, beaten, and lashed to a split-rail fence in near-freezing temperatures. The bicyclists who found him at first mistook him for a scarecrow. Shepard died on October 12 in a Colorado hospital. He had been beaten so badly that his mother was able to recognize him only by his eye color, a bump on his ear, and his braces. His skull was so badly smashed that doctors could not perform surgery.

Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, and Aaron James McKinney, 22, were originally charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery and jailed on $100,000 bail each. With Shepard's death, the charges were upgraded to first-degree murder, which carried a possible death sentence. Their girlfriends, Chastity Vera Pasley, 20, and Kristen Leann Price, 18, were charged as accessories after the fact for dumping bloody clothing and initially lying about Henderson and McKinney's whereabouts. Both men are serving life in prison; the women received short jail sentences.

In a 2004 interview with television news show 20/20, McKinney and Henderson claimed that they killed Shepard for reasons that had nothing to do with his sexuality. They said that he died as the result of a robbery gone wrong. McKinney, who had been strung out on methamphetamines for days, decided to rob a drug dealer. Henderson thought that if he kept McKinney drinking that he would forget the plan. Shepard, well-dressed and with a wallet full of money, said that he was too drunk to go home from the bar, asked for a ride, and then asked for sex in return for giving the pair drugs. McKinney struck Shepard with a gun in his truck and demanded money. Shepard handed over his wallet but McKinney continued to beat him. The pair then decided to dump Shepard in a secluded area and McKinney decided to tie him to a fence. When Shepard purportedly stated that he would report McKinney, he was beaten some more. While the credibility of convicted killers is somewhat questionable, the prosecutor in the Shepard case said that people had overlooked the drug and robbery aspects of the crime in an effort to find an easy answer.


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The Matthew Shepard case put a face on issues surrounding anti-gay sentiment and violence. It initially led to a strong push for hate crime legislation to cover attacks made on the grounds of sexual orientation. Shepard's mother Judy and human rights activists used the case to publicize the need for protections for gays. The Shepard murder became the subject of a popular play and television movie called The Laramie Project that urged tolerance.

However, no national hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation has become law. As of 2006, Wyoming remains one of four states, including Arkansas, Indiana and South Carolina, that have not passed a single piece of hate crime legislation. Legislation periodically introduced in the Wyoming legislature would enhance penalties for those convicted of a misdemeanor in which bigotry was a motivating factor. Supporters argue that the distinction needs to be made clear because not all crimes are equal and that the intent to impose fear on a population should be punished. Rather than pass a law listing particularly vulnerable groups, opponents prefer to focus on evil intent and malice, which already are on the books. Such aspects of a crime can be considered by judges as aggravating factors and can encourage them to take a closer look at defendants whose crimes are motivated by bigotry or the intentional selection of a person because of their association with a group. Additionally, opponents of hate crime legislation fear that ministers who condemn homosexuality on biblical grounds could face sanctions.



Ingebretsen, Edward J. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Patterson, Romaine. The Whole World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard. New York: Advocate, 2005.

Swigonski, Mary E., Robin S. Mama, and Kelly Ward, eds. From Hate Crimes to Human Rights: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2001.

Audio and Visual Media

Kaufman, Moises. The Laramie Project. HBO Home Video, 2002.