Gay Death: It Was The Other Guy

The strategy for the first defendant on trial in the beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard is clear: Blame the co-defendant.

"Russell Henderson was a witness to the beating of Matthew Shepard," attorney Wyatt Skaggs told prospective jurors as Henderson's trial opened Wednesday.

Henderson stood by and watched while his friend Aaron McKinney brutally pistol-whipped Shepard, 21, and left him to die, Skaggs said.

"The defense will contend that Russell did not participate in the beating and did not share in the proceeds of the robbery," he said.

Both Henderson and McKinney are accused of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery in an attack that led to demands for stronger hate-crime laws around the country. McKinney's trial is scheduled for August.

Skaggs asked prospective jurors not to punish his client for the sake of redeeming this small town's image in the eyes of the nation.

"Are any of you here going to judge this case because you feel guilty and want to make a statement to the nation?" he said. "The press wants us to think that we are somehow responsible for what went on October 6."

Prosecutor Cal Rerucha told the potential jurors that Shepard was "not the same as you and I" but that every individual should be treated equally under the Constitution.

Henderson and McKinney, both 21, face the death penalty if convicted. Authorities said the pair pretended to be homosexual and lured the 5-foot-2, 105-pound Shepard out of a downtown bar before they beat him and then left him lashed to a fence in a remote area east of town. The University of Wyoming student died five days later.

Shepard's mother, Judy, remained mostly impassive during the first day of jury selection.

By the end of the day, 15 of 71 prospective jurors in the first pool had been dismissed.

During the session, Skaggs put his arm around Henderson and told the jurors: "This is not a defendant, not a person, but a real live living human being. Can all of you give him a fair shot?"

Written by Robert W. Black