“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.”
Thus, Dennis Shepard, speaking for himself and his wife Judy during a heart-wrenching and nearly unbearable emotional court-room speech to one of his son Matthew’s convicted murders, Aaron McKinney, 22, spared both McKinney and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, 21, of the death penalty. As he spoke, his voice often breaking as he wiped tears streaming down his face and falling to the floor, the sound of weeping throughout the courtroom including men and women in the jury box, Dennis Shepard called his 21-year old son his hero, and he talked of Matthew’s special gift for reaching out and helping others.
McKinney and Henderson kidnapped, beat, tortured, and left Matthew for dead tied to a wooden fence near Laramie, Wyoming on the chilly night of October 6, 1998. Surrounded by his loving family and friends, Matthew died six days later in hospital after succumbing to severe head and brain injuries.
“Every time you celebrate Christmas,” Dennis Shepard added, “a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matthew isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that.”
That day in October, the healing began, not only for the Shepards, the McKinneys, and the Hendersons, but also for Laramie, for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* community, and for a grieving nation.
The Shepard’s resolve in taking the moral high ground served as a testament to the power of love over hate and vengeance. Though they may never fully forgive Matthew’s attackers, they take comfort in their actions in stopping any further killing as a result of their tragedy.
Now in the wake of a Boston jury’s conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on all 30 counts filed against him for the vicious and senseless bombing murders of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, and Lingzi Lu at the finish line of the Boston Marathon two years ago, and later the shooting murder of Sean Collier, a police officer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have the opportunity of following the lead of the Shepards or else of traveling the seemingly unending path of violence and vengeance.
Since Tsarnaev was sentenced on federal charges, 17 of the 30 counts against him carry the possibility of death even in Massachusetts, which bans the death penalty.
Rather than a time of revenge, let the sentencing for the murders and the maiming bring out the best in us all. We are Boston Strong in so many ways and forms:
We are Boston Strong in our resolve to remain united in the face of tragedy. We are Boston Strong in our ability to show mercy amid our grief. We are Boston Strong in our belief that in the midst of tragedy, we may now truly begin the healing process. To kill this murderer would merely place us closer to his level. Vengeance only begets vengeance, and the wheel continues. To stop that wheel, we must dismantle the spokes.
Let us use this time as a detour out of the perennial cycle of violence and vengeance. Let all these senseless murders and maimings, the terror inflicted on so many communities, let these serve as a catalyst to bring people even closer together. Let us all show the world that mercy is far greater than the disgust and rage that we so justly feel as Matthew Shepard’s parents loved their son far more than they hated his killers.
They showed mercy, and today they live in peace with their decision. They have established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue the work of stopping violence and hate, bullying and harassment of anyone who appears different. And they are reaching out to those who perpetrate the violence.
Their example has the potential to bring peace to my beloved city of Boston. Though many may believe my thoughts and words naïve and a pipe dream when considering the enormity of historical animosities in the world, maybe we can use a bit more naivety since little else has shown promise in extricating us from the abyss of using violence to settle scores.
Show the world that these beautiful and loving people, and the countless others killed before them, have not died in vain. Let the healing begin.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press), co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).