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Suspect pleads guilty in beating death of gay college student

Henderson and McKinney
Henderson, left and McKinney


Gay Rights


April 5, 1999
Web posted at: 4:00 PM EDT (1638 GMT)

LARAMIE, Wyoming (CNN) -- One of two men accused in the brutal murder of a gay college student in Wyoming pleaded guilty Monday, admitting his role in a case that has put the spotlight on hate crimes.

Albany County Prosecutor Cal Rerucha told the judge that Russell Henderson, 21, has agreed to plead guilty to the October kidnapping and murder of Matthew Shepard to avoid the death penalty, which prosecutors had sought.

Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was found barely alive, bloodied and tied to a fence on October 7, died five days later.

Henderson, a high-school dropout and roofer, had been charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery in the beating death of Shepard. Felony murder, the count to which he pleaded, means a murder that happens during the commission of another felony, in this case robbery.

He could get two life sentences, one on each count.

Jury selection for his trial was set to begin Monday, until it was delayed by the hearing on the plea agreement.

Another suspect in Shepard's killing, Aaron McKinney, is scheduled to go on trial in August.

Protesters push causes outside courthouse

Jim Osborn, center, a friend of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, stands with the group called "Angel Action" as they protest against anti-gay church protesters  

Young people dressed as angels stood silently Monday outside the courthouse, trying to block from view a group of anti-gay demonstrators.

Inside the ring of a dozen angels organized by friends of Shepard, about a dozen anti-gay demonstrators from Kansas shouted slogans and waved signs, including one that said "God Hates Fags."

"These ... creatures are sending this nation to hell in a handbasket," said the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Phelps and members of his church picketed Shepard's funeral in Casper with anti-gay signs. They also demonstrated at a vigil in Alabama for Billy Jack Gaither, who may have been murdered because he was gay.

Pastor Fred Phelps, looks to the sky as he wields placards protesting homosexuality outside the Albany County Courthouse  

A handful of police officers formed a buffer zone between the two groups of demonstrators.

"I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate-filled," said Romaine Patterson, 21, a friend of Shepard's who organized the angels' counterdemonstration.

"As a young person, I feel it is necessary to show the great nation that we live in that there doesn't need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world," Patterson said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Suspect in gay killing called skinhead 'wannabe'
March 5, 1999
God told suspect in gay killing to confess, deputies say
March 5, 1999
Bias crime bills rejected in state where gay college student was killed
February 3, 1999
Gay teens finding more support amid hostile school hallways
January 25,1999
Woman changes plea, admits helping gay student's accused killers
December 24, 1998

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act
Hate Crimes Prevention Center
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