A jury of seven men and five women today began deliberations to determine whether the killer of Matthew Shepard savagely beat the gay University of Wyoming student in an act of cold rage or reacted in a flash of anger after Shepard made sexual advances.
With his client facing a possible death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, Aaron McKinney's attorney this morning conceded that "Matthew Shepard suffered . . . at the hands of Aaron McKinney" but pleaded with the jury to convict him of manslaughter because he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and did not intend to kill Shepard.
"It happened because Matthew Shepard grabbed his balls, and it continued because Aaron McKinney was under the influence of chronic methamphetamine use," said defense attorney Dion Custis.
In his closing arguments, Custis put his hand on his client's shoulder and said: "Aaron McKinney told you what happened. What he said is he lost control, it was like he was out of his body and didn't know what was going on. . . . He told you, ladies and gentlemen, why he did it--it wasn't because he had any ill will or wanted to kill Matthew Shepard, it was because he lost control."
Shepard, a university freshman at the time of his death, succumbed to massive head injuries in October 1998, five days after police say he was lured from a bar near the university campus and robbed and beaten while being driven to the outskirts of Laramie. He was then tied to a wooden fence, beaten again with a .357 magnum pistol and left to die. His murder immediately became a rallying point for civil rights groups and gay activists seeking greater tolerance of gay men and lesbians and tougher penalties for hate crimes.
McKinney and a friend, Russell Henderson, were quickly arrested by Laramie police, who found some of their bloodstained clothing and obtained incriminating statements from their girlfriends and a confession by McKinney. Henderson pleaded guilty in April and received two life sentences for his role in the assault.
Albany County prosecutor Cal Rerucha, arguing that McKinney is guilty of premeditated murder after he and Henderson plotted in the bar to kidnap and rob Shepard, said the key piece of evidence came from McKinney, when he told police that he had asked Shepard after tying him to the fence whether he could read his truck's license plate number. When Shepard said he could--and read it--McKinney "took the weapon and hit him again, and again, and again," said Rerucha.
"Ladies and gentlemen, what we have is premeditated, first-degree murder," Rerucha told the jury. "Although he can't testify, Matthew Shepard fills every corner of this room and asks you to do justice."
With Shepard's parents seated in the front row of the courtroom, McKinney bowed his head but otherwise showed no emotion.
In a defense that lasted little more than a day, McKinney's attorneys called just seven witnesses. Though District Judge Barton Voigt ruled over the weekend that Custis and his co-counsel, Jason Tangeman, could not use a "gay panic" defense, they did present testimony from two men who said Shepard had made unwanted advances toward them. Voigt's decision came after Tangeman, in opening statements, recalled how McKinney had been scarred by a sexual assault as a child and sexual experimentation with a male cousin as a teen.
Voigt said a gay panic defense--in which a defendant charged with violence against a homosexual claims to be the victim himself because of an unwanted sexual advance--would constitute a temporary insanity or diminished capacity defense. However, neither is permitted under Wyoming law.
The judge did say, however, that such testimony might be relevant if McKinney is convicted of first-degree murder. The jury must then decide in a separate proceeding whether to sentence him to life in prison or to death.