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Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy, talks about
her son and what he wanted in life.
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Updated April 5, 1999, 5:01 p.m. ET

Henderson pleads guilty to felony murder in Matthew Shepard case

           
THE MATTHEW SHEPARD SLAYING: WYO. v. HENDERSON

            >>>> Discuss the case on our message board
>>>> Nov. 19 1998 Update

>>>> Dec. 11, 1998 Update

>>>> March 23, 1999 Update

>>>> March 24 Update (Jury Selection)

>>>> March 25 Update

>>>> March 29 Update

>>>> March 30 Update

>>>> March 31 Update

>>>> April 2 Update

>>>> April 5 Update (Plea Bargain and Sentencing)

>>>> May 22 Update (Pasley Sentencing)

LARAMIE, Wyo. (Court TV) — As anti-gay protesters and friends of Matthew Shepard demonstrated outside the courthouse Monday, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder with robbery and kidnapping in the student's 1998 slaying.

Henderson was one of two men accused of murdering Shepard, a gay college student, in October 1998. Prosecutors say Henderson and his co-defendant, Aaron McKinney, pretending to be gay, lured Shepard out of a bar and into a pickup truck. Then, they say, the pair brutally pistol-whipped him, robbed him, and left him tied like a scarecrow to a fence on a remote road.

A bloody, unconscious Shepard was discovered tied to the fence 18 hours later and taken to the hospital, where he died after several days.

Speculation of Henderson's plea arose Friday after Judge Jeffrey Donnell postponed the resumption of jury selection scheduled for Monday. Henderson agreed to plead guilty in exchange for two consecutive life sentences without parole.

Given the defense's admission during jury selection that the victim's blood was on Henderson's jacket and that he drove the truck into which Shepard was lured, the plea bargain may have been the defendant's best chance to avoid the death penalty. But defense lawyers stressed that Henderson witnessed — but did not participate in — Shepard's murder and did not benefit from the proceeds of the robbery.

During his hearing, Henderson expressed remorse to the Shepard family and admitted that his involvement in Shepard's slaying was voluntary. However, he blamed McKinney for the murder, saying that it was it was his idea to rob and beat Shepard. McKinney, he said, told him where to drive. Henderson claimed that he tried to prevent McKinney from further beating Shepard but was smacked in the face. After that, Henderson said, he helped McKinney tie Shepard to the fence.

"There is not a moment that goes by that I don't see what happened that night," Henderson said. "I hope one day you will be able to find it in your heart to forgive me."

Before Henderson received his sentence, Judy Shepard, the victim's mother, told the court how much she missed Matthew.

"He was my son, my first born, my best friend, my confidante," Judy Shepard said. "I could never understand why anyone would do this to him because he was such a loving young man." Henderson's defense also insisted the slaying was not a hate crime but a robbery gone wrong. Defense attorney Wyatt Skaggs stressed that Henderson is remorseful for his crime.

"Russell Henderson has always felt remorse about this case," Skaggs said. "Everyone comes from families that have relatives who appear stoic in hard times. Different people react differently to difficult situations. Russell Henderson is no different. Everyone thinks people should cry when hard times happen, but Russell is stoic by nature."

The plea bargain will save Laramie approximately $100,000, the anticipated cost of Henderson's trial. The small county reportedly would have had to raise taxes and cut services in order to pay for the trial.

In the hours leading to Henderson's plea bargain, a dozen young people dressed as angels with white sheets and wings clashed with anti-gay demonstrators outside the Laramie courthouse. Although six officers stood between the two factions, the angels, friends of Matthew Shepard, surrounded and and tried to block from view several people shouting anti-gay slogans and waving anti-gay signs.

McKinney will face trial in August, and Henderson's testimony against his friend would bolster the prosecution's case. Prosecutors refused to reveal whether Henderson would testify at McKinney's trial.

Henderson's plea came as jury selection in his case was about to reach a conclusion. Lawyers in the case finished selecting a panel of 47 jurors last Wednesday, and had hoped reconvene Monday to whittle the group down to the final 12, with three alternates.

Court TV's Clara Tuma and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

   

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