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Editorial: Shepard's killers deserve death penalty

Arizona Daily Wildcat,
November 8, 1999
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Once again, the American court system, where justice is always supposed to prevail, allowed a horrible injustice to occur.

Aaron McKinney, 22, escaped the death penalty on Thursday after agreeing to spend the remainder of his life in prison for the savage murder of Matthew Shepard, 21, a University of Wyoming student.

McKinney and his 22-year-old cohort Russell Henderson lured Shepard out of a bar in Laramie, Wyo., robbed him of $20, tied him to a fence and beat him on the head with a pistol until he was comatose. The blows were so severe that Shepard's skull cracked.

Henderson and McKinney then bolted from the scene, leaving Shepard to die. According to his girlfriend, a blood-covered McKinney returned home and admitted to the murder.

Investigators said that the main motive in the attack was robbery, but the duo singled out Shepard because he was gay.

The case -which ended Wednesday with a jury convicting McKinney of second-degree murder -has captivated the country, prompting rallies on college campuses and heightening awareness of hate crimes that, sadly, occur every day across America.

In court, McKinney's defense team alleged that their client was sent into a rage after Shepard grabbed his crotch area, sparking memories of a childhood sexual assault.

And while that's all very sad, can that possibly be an excuse for such a brutal murder? Of course not.

Thankfully, the judge prohibited defense attorneys from using a "gay panic" defense, which would have basically made Shepard responsible for his own murder by saying that the defendants had an overpowering fear of becoming the sexual object of a gay person.

It's amazing that the defense had the gall to even suggest this type of defense.

Why Shepard's parents agreed to life imprisonment for McKinney is inexplicable. A prosecutor said the appeals process - which defense attorneys would have initiated immediately - is "almost inhumane." Most likely to avoid another awful ordeal, the Shepards conceded.

"Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday or the Fourth of July, remember Matthew isn't," Shepard's father, Dennis, said in court through tears. "Every time you wake up in that prison cell, remember you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night."

And that's the main point: McKinney and Henderson could have held back.

But they didn't. They chose to beat Shepard to death. They made a conscious decision to crack his skull. They stole the life of a promising young man and took a child from his parents.

For that, they deserve to die.

The savagery of this act goes beyond a typical crime. These animals set out to kill. Whether or not the act of murder was premeditated, Henderson and McKinney knew full well that striking someone repeatedly with the butt of a pistol generally results in death.

The type of person who commits an act of this sort should not even be given a chance at rehabilitation. The only way to properly punish McKinney and Henderson is with the death penalty.

In an era where defense attorneys can convince juries that murderers like O.J. Simpson were framed by racist police officers, the Shepard sentencing sets yet another bad precedent.


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