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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 06:42 GMT

World: Americas

Gay student murder trial begins

Matthew Shepard was left for dead, tied to a fence

A prosecutor asked prospective jurors to set aside their emotions if chosen to try a 21-year-old man charged with murdering a gay student in a small western American town.

Prosecutor Cal Rerucha also said to the 71 members of the jury pool that although slain student Matthew Shepard was "different, a victim that was not the same as you and I," that the Constitution requires all people to be treated fairly under the law.

The statement came at the start of the trial of Russell Henderson, 21, one of two men charged in the murder. He is also charged with kidnapping and aggravated robbery.

Both Mr Henderson and his co-defendant, Aaron McKinney, also 21 years old, both face the death penalty if convicted.

Opening statements in Mr Henderson's trial are expected to begin April 6. Mr McKinney will be tried later.

Murder sparked protest
[ image: Henderson and McKinney: Charged with first-degree murder]
Henderson and McKinney: Charged with first-degree murder
When the battered body of Matthew Shepard was discovered tied to a fence post in rural Wyoming last October, there were nation-wide protests about hate crimes directed at homosexuals.

Mr Shepard was left for dead in freezing temperatures and died in hospital later. His skull was so badly fractured that doctors said surgery was not an option.

Police believe that Mr Henderson and Mr McKinney posed as homosexuals to lure Matthew Shepard to his death in the small Wyoming town of Laramie.

Both men could be given the death penalty if convicted. McKinney's trial is scheduled to begin in August.

Focus for protest

[ image: Matthew Shepard: Targetted because he was gay]
Matthew Shepard: Targetted because he was gay
In recent months, the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard has become a focal point for gay rights campaigners and civil rights groups across America.

President Bill Clinton and many others have spoken out about the threat posed by groups peddling homophobia as well as race hatred.

The beating to death of Mr Shepard placed a particularly harsh spotlight on the small town of Laramie.

The victim was a student at the University of Wyoming in the town. According to gay rights activists, the killing was symptomatic of an undercurrent of intolerance in America's rural West.

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Internet Links

Letters for Matt: University of Wyoming Newspaper

University of Wyoming: Benefit Fund for Matthew Shepard

State Governor Jim Geringer's Statement on the murder

Matthew Shepard Online Memorial

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