Aaron McKinney was convicted of felony murder in the killing of college student Matthew Shepard. He has been sentenced to serve two life sentences. (Ed Andrieski/AP Photo)


McKinney Gets Two Life Terms
Avoids Death Penalty for Gay Student’s Murder, Apologizes to Victim’s Family


Nov. 4 — Aaron McKinney was given two life sentences today for the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard, in a deal approved by the victim’s parents.

     A 12-person jury in Laramie, Wyo., convicted McKinney of felony murder Wednesday. The jurors were to begin hearing testimony in the sentencing phase today, but instead Judge Barton Voight announced that, under an arrangement with prosecutors, McKinney will serve two consecutive life terms in prison.
     McKinney had faced the possibility of being sentenced to death by lethal injection. The deal was reached after Shepard’s parents agreed to accept two life terms in prison for their son’s killer.

‘I’m Truly Sorry …’
“I really don’t know what to say other than that I’m truly sorry to the entire Shepard family,” McKinney told the court. “Never will a day go by I won’t be ashamed for what I have done.”
     “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney, but now is the time to heal,” Shepard’s father, Dennis, told the 22-year-old roofer. “Every time you wake up in your cell, remember you had the opportunity or the ability to stop your actions that night.”
     Prosecutor Cal Rerucha said the defense approached prosecutors and the Shepard family about a deal after the verdict. He says he didn’t want the deal, but Shepard’s family wanted to show tolerance.
     Today’s sentencing hearing was delayed for more than an hour as both sides finalized the agreement calling for the two life sentences for felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping.
     His case followed the plea bargain earlier this year of Russell Henderson, who pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping charges and is serving two consecutive life sentences in a Wyoming prison.
     Testimony at McKinney’s trial showed that McKinney and Henderson lured Shepard from a Laramie bar, pistol-whipped him and left him tied to a fence outside of town. Shepard was found some 18 hours later by a passer-by and died in a hospital five days later on Oct. 12, 1998.

Jury Rejected First-Degree Murder
The McKinney jury reached its verdict after deliberating for almost eight hours on Tuesday and for just over one hour Wednesday morning.
     The jury’s decision was slightly split because it rejected a first-degree murder charge. The acquittal on that charge apparently was based on the jury’s determination that the Shepard murder was not planned in advance.
     Instead the jury found McKinney guilty of felony murder. That conviction results when a jury finds a defendant guilty of a felony and finds that a death resulted in the commission of that felony.
     Defense attorneys had argued that McKinney experienced “gay panic,” brought on by an advance from the 21-year-old Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming. It triggered memories of childhood sexual abuse, they claimed, and sent McKinney into a deadly rage.
     But the strategy seemed to crumble when the judge barred the use of the controversial defense.
     Defense attorney Dion Custis ended up telling the jury that his client never intended for Shepard to die, that drugs clouded his thinking and that he is so hapless his friends call him “Dopey.”
     It was a starkly different portrayal than the prosecution painted — of McKinney as a “cold-blooded savage” who along with a friend preyed on Shepard like a wolf. Attorneys argued that the act was premeditated and deserved a conviction of first-degree murder.
     “What is most striking is not that Matthew Shepard is homosexual, but that he is frail and small and if anyone was born to be a victim in this case it was Matthew Shepard,” Albany County District Attorney Cal Rerucha told jurors in Tuesday’s closing arguments.

 To read more about the trial click here
Trial Updates


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