A dramatic moment of mercy

The Shepard family spares the life of their son's killer.

Published November 5, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Judy Shepard intervened Wednesday night to save the life of the young man who murdered her son. Her husband Dennis and prosecutor Cal Rerucha argued against it, but eventually agreed to accept her wishes. Judge Barton Voigt announced the deal in open court Thursday morning: two consecutive life sentences, no possibility of parole, waiver of all rights to appeal.

Aaron McKinney, who was found guilty Wednesday of first-degree felony murder in the 1998 bludgeoning of gay college student Matthew Shepard, made only a brief statement before the sentence was pronounced. "I really don't know what to say other than that I'm truly sorry to the entire Shepard family," he said. "Never will a day go by I won't be ashamed for what I have done."

Dennis Shepard stood before the court and spoke for the family Thursday morning, accepting the deal. "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. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt."

He sobbed several times delivering the raw, candid speech, which ran six single-spaced pages. He had to stop twice to recover his composure. "Mr. McKinney," he concluded, "I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it."

He returned to Judy's side on the hard wooden bench in the front row. They both stared straight ahead, and she slipped her hand onto his knee. His hand crept over and swallowed hers inside it. They remained that way through most of the formal sentencing. Eventually she reached over with her far hand, clutched his forearm and held it fast.

Though Wednesday's verdict left McKinney vulnerable to the death penalty, legal analysts generally agreed that the jury's refusal to convict on the key premeditation charge left an actual execution unlikely. But what inspired these parents to concede that possibility for the man who brutally murdered their son, then accused him of provoking the attack? Rerucha expressed disbelief at the audacity of the defense request to "give some relief, some type of pity to a person who had murdered their son."

The Shepard family has no objections to the death penalty per se. They had maintained a strict silence on the issue the past year, to refrain from influencing prospective jurors. But Dennis Shepard revealed in his courthouse speech that the entire family supported the death penalty in certain cases. He said they'd had family discussions on the issue -- in fact, Matthew Shepard had expressed his desire that the white supremacists who dragged James Byrd Jr. to death in Jasper, Texas, be executed, just a few months before his own murder.

The Shepards' decision plays a part in the story of brutality and tolerance that Mathew Shepard's murder has come to represent in the national consciousness.

The sentencing deal was finalized late Thursday morning, when an appeals expert vetted the agreement, minor kinks were cleaned out and Judge Voigt signed off. But the real negotiations were hashed out in a series of secret meetings Wednesday afternoon, and a deal was struck in principle by nightfall. Police Sgt. Rob DeBree, the primary investigator on the case, brokered the deal along with Cmdr. Dave O'Malley, and they detailed the secret negotiations in an interview with Salon News Thursday afternoon.

Public Defender Jason Tangeman initiated negotiations shortly after the guilty verdict was announced on Wednesday. He called Rerucha for the first time in months, asking to speak to the Shepards. Rerucha was flabbergasted, but passed the request along, and to his surprise the couple agreed.

They sat down in a large room inside the Albany County Courthouse Wednesday afternoon, attorneys on one side, Shepards and detectives O'Malley and DeBree on the other. "There was a large amount of tension," O'Malley said.

DeBree said McKinney's team was clear on their motives. Though legal experts contended McKinney had very little chance of actually receiving a death sentence, the prospect apparently looked very different from his vantage point. "Bottom line, Aaron was afraid he was going to die," DeBree said.

Approval of any deal ultimately rested with Rerucha, but because of his strained relationship with the opposition -- "I don't talk to the defense team," he said, "We don't get along." -- he waited upstairs. The detectives facilitated the half-hour meeting, which consisted mainly of a detailed offer by the defense team. "Judy sat quietly with incredible resolve and listened to their statement," DeBree said. Dennis Shepard left after just five or six minutes.

At the end the presentation, Judy Shepard gave a short response. She said she didn't appreciate the defense the attorneys had put on, but understood their job. Then she walked across the room to shake hands, before departing. "That activated some emotion from the defense," DeBree said -- "Finally!" The response was physically visible, he said. "They became immediately sensitized to what their client had done."

The Shepards and detectives then returned upstairs to hash the deal out with Rerucha. Dennis Shepard was opposed to it, Rerucha was strongly opposed, and Judy Shepard seemed conflicted.

Discussion over the defense offer lasted for hours, ranging well beyond the legal concerns. The Shepards, the prosecutor, the detectives, everyone in the room had to grapple with the tension between their personal desires for justice and the impact any decision might register on the national psyche. No one was likely to forget the media horde camped outside the courthouse, the flocks of reporters dogging their every mood the last year.

They'd all felt the media presence as an annoyance -- Rerucha's run-ins with the press are legendary -- but they were just as aware of the impact that coverage had played in waking up the country to the gay-bashing problem.

Judy was concerned with the impact she's tried to generate with the Matthew Shepard foundation, her public service announcements running on MTV, the message she's been projecting of tolerance and acceptance. Gradually, she seemed to resolve that she had to set the kind of example she'd been calling for. "It's just her message of tolerance for all people," Rerucha said. "Matthew stood for something, and that was tolerance." He said she forced everyone in the room to question their motives, whether they were after revenge rather than justice. She remained in the minority, but eventually carried the day.

McKinneys attorneys were summoned to produce an offer in writing, they proffered it by 5 p.m., and nothing remained but the details.

"Matt's beating, hospitalization and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate," Dennis Shepard told the court the following day. "Good is coming out of evil. People have said 'Enough is enough'; You screwed up, Mr. McKinney. You made this world realize that a person's lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution ... My son, Matthew, paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day."

Minutes later, at a news conference on the courthouse lawn, Rerucha confided his own reluctance in approving the deal. "I am very surprised I am standing here right now and talking about two consecutive life sentences," he said. "The decision here, of course, is mine. We put our heads together. I heard what they had to say. I thought about it. I prayed. I will never get over Judy Shepard's capacity to forgive. She really brought that home to me. There is praying, and there is living a religion. I think it's an example for all people."

Judy Shepard was too emotional to talk to reporters after the sentencing. Reporters asked if she'd like to add anything and she silently shook her head, continued to clutch her husband's hand. But in an interview last month she told me she was looking forward to finally facing the trial, getting past it. "It will be a relief to have it over," she predicted. "A relief yes, but not a resolution."

By Dave Cullen

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

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