Three People Look Back At The Shepard Case

Oct 5, 2018

From the time they learned about the Shepard attack, it was a busy time for Laramie law enforcement and the legal community as they dealt with the two people accused of murdering Matthew Shepard. The case had intense media scrutiny and international interest that overwhelmed residents of Laramie. Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck caught up with three people who were very closely involved in the case. A police investigator, a judge and a defense attorney who discuss their memories and what they think happened.

Albany County Sheriff Dave O'Malley first heard about Matthew Shepard the night he was beaten. After Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson left an unconscious Shepard they came back to town. But when they arrived they got into another altercation and McKinney hit one of them with the same gun they used to beat Shepard. Officers arrived and found a Matthew Shepard credit card in McKinney's truck. They also found an extremely bloody gun. O'Malley, who worked for the Police Department at the time, said it all came together the next day.

"When the young man riding a bicycle out near Sherman Hills and crashed and ultimately found Matthew tied to the fence, the first deputies at the scene found a University of Wyoming identification card next to Matthew that had his picture and his name on it."

O'Malley sighed as he looked at pictures of Shepard's head bashed in and covered with blood.

"It was a concentrated effort to hit him in the head. He had traumatic injuries that I've only seen in high impact car crashes," said O'Malley.

It was suggested that Shepard's murder was a hate crime and throngs of media, activists, and others descended on Laramie.

Former District Court Judge Jeff Donnell had been in Laramie only two years and was unprepared for the attention. The crime part was fine, the problem was the media.

"The first day that I really realized that this was going to be more than a regional sort of case was when the defendants made their initial appearance in my courtroom because Judge Castor didn't have room in the old courtroom in the basement of the courthouse, " recalled Donnell."And I sort of poked my head through the door to see what was going on at the time and it was chaos."

There were cameras and media sitting in places reserved for attorneys, Donnell called it out of control and they quickly realized they needed a plan for the media. He remembers completely inaccurate news stories and reporters who were rude.

"Russell Henderson's grandmother, Lucy Thompson walked out of the courthouse one day and she was surrounded by a scrum of reporters, about 50, and Lucy Thompson was a nice lady who didn't deserve that kind of treatment," Donnell recalled.

At the time Attorney Jason Tangeman was a public defender who was assigned to Aaron McKinney. He was aware of the media and heard talk that it was a hate crime, but he was focused on the task at hand.

"This was really a death penalty case and as such that's really what we were focused on," said Tangeman.

Beck:"Trying to keep him alive and not get the death penalty?"

"Correct," Tangeman answered.

The goal was to tell the jury that McKinney snapped when Shepard put his hand near his groin and that the murder was not planned.

An ongoing debate in Laramie is whether or not this was a hate crime. McKinney and Henderson were charged with murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Others have alternative theories about what happened.

Tangeman said he believes that the case was accurately charged by the prosecution and thinks alternative theories about what happened are wrong.

Beck: "Any belief that this is a drug deal gone bad?"

Tangeman: "None."

Beck: "Any belief that they knew each other?

Tangeman-"No evidence that they knew each other. If someone saw them both at a gathering or a party, I guess that would surprise me a little bit (chuckles), it's possible. But it would surprise me because I just don't think that those two people were running around in the same circles at that time."

In fact, Tangeman said that McKinney frequently told them in meetings that he didn't know Shepard. O'Malley has been on record many times saying that Shepard was the victim of a hate crime. When it comes to whether Shepard was a drug dealer or was on meth, O'Malley said there was no evidence.

"We did a very meticulous search of Matthew's apartment and there wasn't one indication of meth use or possession or anything surrounding Matt."

Judge Donnell has read books and articles on alternative theories and said his view on what happened hasn't changed.

"Based on the evidence that I saw, even in the pre-trial hearings and that sort of thing, I don't have any reason to think it was any more than killing him because he was gay."

All three said it's surprising that the case is still being talked about 20 years later, but they all agree that Shepard's murder has changed the dialogue about LGBTQ issues in the state for the better.