On Monday morning, one day shy of a year after her son Matthew died, Judy Shepard will be occupying a front-row seat in a spare courtroom in the Albany County courthouse, observing the first day of jury selection in the trial of the young man authorities portray as the ringleader in a savage, anti-gay crime.
Shepard said she will be there on Monday and every day of the trial of Aaron McKinney--not to confront her son's alleged killer, not just to see justice done, not even so much to find some sense of closure.
"I have to be there to remind everyone that Matt was more than a newspaper story and a photograph," said Shepard. "To remind them that he was a real person with a real family who loved him."
The capital murder trial of McKinney, 22, comes six months after his co-defendant, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty and received a life sentence for luring Shepard from a bar in this college community and driving him to the outskirts of Laramie, where he was beaten with a pistol and left to die strung up on a rough wooden fence. The trial will in one sense close the book on an ugly crime that grabbed the nation by the shoulders and forced it to confront the price of hate and intolerance--and then served as a rallying point for special interests pushing everything from gay rights to opposition to the death penalty.
But it also will mark another step in Judy Shepard's evolving journey in becoming a national spokeswoman for human rights, a role she has adopted slowly and tentatively over the past year.
Shy and soft-spoken, a stay-at-home mother for most of her adult life, Shepard gradually has realized that she can make a difference in the continuing national conversation on hate crimes and intolerance.
Rather than push a specific political agenda, Shepard has tried to talk openly and honestly about her son, to put a human face on the cost of intolerance.
"Please don't let there be a next time," she pleads in a public service announcement that is airing on MTV. Two more television spots she did for the Human Rights Campaign will begin airing later this month.
"My role is as a mom who lost her son, and I don't want it to happen again," Shepard said in a telephone interview from Washington, where she was honored yesterday by the Human Rights Campaign, whose 300,000 members make it the largest gay advocacy organization in the country.
From the flood of correspondence she has received in the past year--10,000 letters and 80,000 e-mails--Shepard said she can tell that her son's murder has made a difference. "I have to believe something positive will come from this," she said.
Quantifying the impact is difficult. In the wake of the Shepard murder and the national outcry that ensued, 26 states considered legislation dealing with hate crimes, from enhanced penalties to stronger data collection. Only one was enacted, in Missouri, though California Gov. Gray Davis recently signed legislation outlawing harassment of gays in that state's schools.
"Tangible changes since Matthew's death have been few," said David M. Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. "I believe the tangible results are going to be down the road further. Really what's changed is a renewed focus on the issue of anti-gay violence and how anti-gay prejudice manifests itself in lethal ways. That has created a change in public opinion that will manifest itself in policy changes down the road. There's no question that Matthew's death touched the nation's heart."
Nancy DeLap, the co-president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Fort Collins, Colo.--the city near the Wyoming border where Shepard died--sees the change every month at the group's meetings. From a regular attendance of fewer than a dozen, the meetings now draw 30 or more people, she said.
Though Fort Collins voters last fall defeated a proposal to include sexual orientation in the city's human rights ordinance, DeLap said there is now a stronger support system for gays. Young people, she said, come to her meetings "as a place to get support from parents even when they are not getting it from their own."
Still, gay rights advocates fear that McKinney's trial will serve as a forum for the other side, that his attorneys will mount a "gay panic defense" and in effect put Shepard on trial by asserting that their client attacked him because he made sexual advances. "We are braced for that," said Cathy Renna, director of community relations for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
McKinney's attorneys, along with others involved in the criminal trial, cannot comment on their strategy because of a gag order issued by the court.
Having Judy Shepard at the trial day in and day out will be a powerful weapon, said Renna. "You are going to hear the voice of Judy Shepard for a long time," Renna said. "She speaks to parents and teachers and straight people on a level we never could."
For her part, Judy Shepard is as uncomfortable with her son being deified as she is with him being demonized.
"I don't think it's fair to Matt to make him larger than life," she said. "He should be remembered as just a kid, as somebody who lived his life honestly."