The trial that wasn't

A plea bargain averted a full courtroom showdown in the Matthew Shepard case, but feuding Christian right preachers and the stories of two grieving families made for gripping drama nonetheless.

Published April 8, 1999 6:00AM (EDT)

Most of the world believes a murder trial was averted Monday afternoon in the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard, when Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, and everybody went home. But Laramie witnessed a whirlwind trial in fast-forward: all the essentials of a three-week trial collapsed into one unrelenting day of drama.

Laramie was braced for a long, contentious showdown. Citizens who mourned the stain of hate the Shepard murder left on their city were hoping for a shot at redemption -- such as Jasper, Tex., achieved in February with the conviction of John William King in the murder of James Byrd. Gay rights opponents were ready for the limelight. Prosecutors had promised three weeks of high drama, including the first graphic pictures of the crime scene and a looming death sentence. The media rolled in the satellite trucks to cover this latest battle in the ongoing culture wars.

But in the final hours before scheduled opening arguments, Russell Henderson pulled down the curtain prematurely with a plea bargain, agreeing to plead guilty to avoid the death sentence. Rumors of a possible deal had swirled around Laramie all weekend, and Monday morning featured a full schedule of demonstrations, just in case it was the protesters' only day in the sun. Predictably, the Rev. Fred Phelps and a dozen picketers from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas were there. They'd picketed Shepard's funeral, too. They were having a ball outside the courthouse, waving colorful placards reading "God Hates Fags" and "Save the Gerbils," and a full-color blowup of Shepard with the caption "Matthew in Hell."

But Phelps' contingent was surprised by a parade of Shepard sympathizers dressed in white angel costumes 7 feet high, with 8-foot wingspans. The "Angels of Peace" quickly surrounded his group and smiled silently at the crowd, which enthusiastically cheered them on.

Oddly, the biggest battles took place not between gay rights supporters and opponents, but within the Christian right. The Rev. Louis Sheldon, a prominent anti-gay crusader, flew in from Washington to denounce Phelps' message of "hate." He maintained a healthy distance of 100 meters from Phelps' demonstration, and spoke to reporters individually. Phelps' tactics also drew angry rebukes from local conservative Christian ministers throughout the morning, including a heated shouting match between Phelps' son Jonathan and the Rev. Ivan Byrd, pastor of Laramie's Redemption Chapel.

"You have already condemned him to hell," Byrd shouted, red-faced and angry. "How do you know he went to hell?"

"Hypocrite!" Phelps screamed back. "Shill! Shill, shill, shill!"

"I would like to see if Christ were standing here today. Christ would have judged you!" Byrd said.

But the courtroom drama appeared to begin and end at 1 p.m., with Judge Jeffrey Donnell's statement to Henderson: "I understand you may wish to change your plea." Henderson agreed to plead guilty to kidnapping, and to felony murder with robbery as the underlying cause. He would accept two life sentences to avoid the death penalty. The charge of premeditated murder would be dropped.

In the first of several strange twists, the judge ordered Henderson to take the stand, where he was questioned by Wyatt Skaggs, his own attorney. Defense team and defendant rapidly laid out their version of the state's case against them, without objection or cross-examination by the prosecution.

The word "gay" was conspicuously absent. "Sexual orientation" was never mentioned. Neither was "lifestyle" or "persuasion," certainly not "hate." According to the defense, this was your ordinary $20 robbery, where the perpetrators just happened to drive their victim clear out of town and bash his brains in, tie him to a fence and leave him for dead, after taking his shoes. They got $10 and one shoe apiece.

Henderson answered each question directly and politely. He looked nothing like those ghastly jailhouse photos in the orange prison overalls, harsh crew cut and dazed expression. The shirt and tie helped, and he had grown out his hair.

He matter-of-factly described how he drove the truck out of town, bound Shepard hand and foot to the fence post, under the direction of Aaron McKinney. "Aaron told me where to go, and I stopped where he told me." Though McKinney says that Henderson began the beating and leveled the majority of the blows, Henderson claims he never laid a hand on the murder weapon, and actually intervened to try to stop it: "Matthew looked really bad. So I told [McKinney] to stop. He looked pretty bad." Then McKinney hit him, Henderson said, and from then on, he followed orders without question. But did McKinney force you to do this? Henderson's attorney asked. No, Henderson acknowledged: "I was doing it of my own free will."

The state did not contest this version of the facts. But after the proceedings, lead prosecutor Cal Rerucha promised reporters that the hate motive would come out at McKinney's trial in August, where he would vigorously pursue the death penalty. It simply "was not appropriate" here, he said.

The judge accepted the verdict, and unveiled his next surprise: Henderson would waive his right to a pre-sentencing investigation, and the sentencing phase would commence on the spot.

Henderson's grandmother, Lucy Thompson, approached the podium to speak on behalf of his family. She turned immediately to Judy and Dennis Shepard. "Our hearts ache for the pain and suffering that the Shepards have went through. We have prayed for your family from the very beginning." Her voice broke. "You have shown us such mercy." She presented a moving portrait of a loving young man with a troubled upbringing who made a terrible mistake. "It is not our wish to condone what Russell has done," Thompson said.

But she painted a very different Russell Henderson than the murderer the world had come to know -- a gripping picture of an alternative Russell Henderson, of the man he could have been. She introduced a man who delighted in getting down on the floor to play with his young nieces and nephews, a man terribly concerned with his image among his "way cool" friends, yet unembarrassed to tell his grandmother he loved her in front of them.

"We will never give up on him," she said. "For we know he has goodness within him." At times her speech felt less like a plea for mercy, than a final gift to her 21-year-old boy, a message of love to sustain him through a life of hopeless imprisonment. At the very end, she turned away from the judge, faced her grandson for the last time outside prison walls, and said: "I want you to know that your grandmother loves you with all her heart."

Two assistants at the defense table fought back tears throughout her testimony. They lost the battle when they heard Judy Shepard. "I'm not really sure we understand it yet ourselves," she said quietly -- how she could lose her firstborn "for $20 and some twisted reason known only to his killers." She told the stories of Matthew well known across America by now: tiny little boy, tiny young man; unquenchable curiosity, exuberance, innocence. She recounted the horrifying period after first receiving the news of his brutal beating: 19 hours spent waiting for a flight back from Saudi Arabia, where her husband, Dennis, worked; another day and night of traveling, hoping and praying they could get to him before he died. She lost her composure several times, and stopped mid-sentence describing Matthew as a confidant, a true friend.

She betrayed little anger through most of her testimony, more consumed with the loss of her boy than with the man who'd taken him from her. But eventually she turned to Henderson, and told him that she'd spent hours debating whether to address him or to choose to ignore his existence. "But we all know you do exist. You murdered my son."

Her husband, Dennis, was less restrained in his anger. He said he prepared a speech but set it aside that morning. "My son was born blind," he said. "Not physically, but to people's differences." He described Matthew's parade of friends through his life: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, straight, gay; it made no difference. "Who will be their friend now?" He scoffed at Henderson's repentance. "It takes a unique person to watch someone beaten to death," and to do nothing, he said.

Judge Donnell agreed. "This court does not feel that you really feel any true remorse," he said. The only issue before him, he said, was to determine whether the two life sentences would be imposed consecutively or concurrently. It was largely an academic question, because in Wyoming life means life: no chance for parole, only the unlikely prospect of a commutation by a future governor. But imposing the sentences consecutively "makes a statement," Donnell said, and he did so: "At the very least, you stood by while he was struck again and again and again."

The trial of Aaron McKinney starts in August.

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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