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Shepard’s Parents Strike Bargain Sparing Son’s Killer’s from Death

By Julie Cart

The parents of slain college student Matthew Shepard interceded to save the life of his killer, brokering an 11th-hour deal that will send Aaron McKinney to jail for life while sparing him the death penalty.

As the sentencing phase of the murder trial in Laramie, Wyo., was about to begin Thursday morning, Judge Barton Voigt announced the deal: McKinney, 22, is to serve two consecutive life sentences, has no chance for parole and no opportunity to appeal.

A jury had earlier convicted the former roofer of felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping in the October 1998 beating death of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student. McKinney and an accomplice, Russell Henderson, lured Shepard, who was gay, from a local bar, robbed him, beat him with the butt of a pistol and left him tied to a range fence on a wind-swept prairie. Shepard was not discovered for 18 hours, and he died days later in a Colorado hospital, having never regained consciousness.

In an almost identical plea bargain, Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and was sentenced in April to two life terms.

Dennis Shepard read a lengthy, emotional statement in court Thursday, calling his 21-year-old son his hero and citing his special gift for helping people. As he spoke haltingly, pausing to wipe tears, many in the courtroom openly wept, including members of the jury.

Addressing McKinney, Shepard said: “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.”

With his jailhouse pallor and a military-style haircut, McKinney remained impassive through much of the trial. He did not testify in the weeklong trial. On Thursday, he spoke for the first time, facing Dennis and Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother.

“I don’t know what to say other than I am sorry to the entire Shepard family. There won’t be a day that goes by that I won’t be ashamed for what I did,” McKinney told the court.