The following is Judy Shepard’s Victim Impact Statement.
I want to thank the court for this opportunity to talk about Matt. I feel that I must try to share with you what Matt’s life and death have meant to us. It is important that he be revealed to you as a loving, vibrant, kind, young man. You need to see him as we do to try and understand our loss. However, I am not sure we really understand it yet ourselves.
Matt would be the first to say that he was not a perfect child. He made mistakes. He experienced many disappointments and many successes.
While still in elementary school, Matt became very interested in the theatre. He joined Stage III, the local Community Theatre, and was also in many of the local Community College performances. In addition, he began to take an interest in politics and current news events. He was quite adept at understanding complex issues and was equally adept at expressing his opinions on these issues.
He had such hopes for the future, his future. He was always anxious for the next step – the next stage of his life to begin. Every new step meant new challenges, new friends and new experiences.
When Dennis and I made the decision to move to Saudi Arabia, the boys were thrilled. There were no American high schools in Saudi, so all students had attend a boarding school following graduation from the ninth grade. Matt and his Dad chose an American high school in Switzerland to finish Matt’s high school career. Matt was so excited to see a different parts of the world. He thought this would be such a wonderful opportunity to learn about the world, its different cultures, learn the languages and history of other countries. Not only the country where he would be living, but also the countries of the other students that would be attending the school. He felt these experiences could only help him define his future.
All of these experiences opened his eyes and heart even more to the differences in people. He knew that judging, stereotyping and categorizing people was the loss of an opportunity. He never understood why everyone didn’t think that way. He felt there could be nothing better on this earth than another friend.
Matt was a good and loyal friend to those who knew him. He was always considerate of their feelings – always there to listen – to share – to give whatever he could. He earned their love and respect just as they earned his.
I love him more than I can express in this statement. There aren’t enough words to describe how much I love him. We shared so much – late night talks trying to solve the problems of the world as we understood them, politics, love of movies good and bad, theatre, books, good food and good conversation. He was my son, my first born and more. He was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be – and ultimately, how hurtful.
I will never understand why anyone would want to hurt Matt – to act with such cruelty – such complete disregard for another human being.
It was about 5am in Saudi on Thursday Oct. 8 when the call came from the Laramie hospital advising us of Matt’s condition as they knew it. There was a 9 hour time difference between Laramie and Saudi. Every time we would get a call at such an odd hour – my first reaction would be a silent prayer – please God let Matt be all right – this call he was not.
We began an eternal wait to get to Fort Collins, Colorado, where they had taken Matt. We hoped and prayed he would recover from his injuries.
We knew he was critically injured and that his hold on life was tenuous at best. But we still hoped. Our highest hope was Matt’s complete recovery. Our most basic hope was that he would hold on until we could be with him.
We left Saudi Arabia on the first available flight, nineteen hours after receiving the initial call. The trip seemed to last forever – a 6 hour flight to Amsterdam – a 6 hour layover – an 8 hour flight to Minneapolis – a 2 hour layover – a 90 minute flight to Denver and then a 90 minute drive to Fort Collins. A 25 hour trip after waiting 19 hours to begin. It was an eternity, an eternity of not knowing if Matt was even still alive. We were unable to check on his condition once we began to travel.
When I would think of him, the image that would come to mind was Matt alone on the prairie and tied to a fence for 18 hours.
When we arrived in Fort Collins, late afternoon on Friday Oct. 9, we were escorted into Matt’s room. What we found was a motionless, unaware young man with his head swathed in bandages, and tubes everywhere enabling the body to hold onto life.
We heard the machine helping him breathe. We saw the screens monitoring his various vital signs. His face swollen and covered with stitches – his right ear had been stitched, reattached and was still bleeding. I wasn’t even sure this was Matt. As we approached the bed, I saw that this was indeed my precious son. I could tell by the cute little bump on the top of his left ear. One of his eyes was partially open and I could see the clear blue color and who could mistake those long black lashes. But the twinkle of life wasn’t there anymore. And those braces – I could see his teeth clenching the tubes – those braces were unmistakably Matthew’s.
We kissed his face, stroked his arms, held his hands, and talked to him. We so desperately wanted him to know we were there. There was some kind of response. He began to shake and his arms and legs went rigid. We thought maybe he was aware of our presence, but no, it was an involuntary response to the touching. I was thinking, how could anyone feel so threatened by this tiny sweet child that they would do this to him. Such an act of brutality is incomprehensible.
Logan, Matt’s younger brother, refused to go into the room. He didn’t want that image of Matt to be the one that would appear when he would think of his brother. He wanted the smiling, laughing, bright-eyed, handsome young face to come to mind. It wasn’t long, however, before he realized that this was probably the last opportunity he would have to say good-bye, his last chance to say once again I love you.
I’ll never forget that look of terror on his face when he first saw Matt. He was trembling, the tears streaming down his face. He went over to the bed, picked up Matt’s hand and put it on his cheek. He asked us if he could be alone. We left the room but kept an eye on him using the monitor at the nurses’ station. We had to make sure he was OK. We could see him talking to Matt – holding his hand. But, by now we were all painfully aware that Matt would never wake up.
We spent the next two days with Matt. Various relatives and family friends and friends of Matt’s had come to be with us. Sunday night, shortly after having left the hospital and close to midnight, we received a call from the hospital telling us we needed to return immediately. When we arrived at Matt’s room, we were joined by friends and other members of the family. We surrounded his bed, each of us trying to touch him, to hold on, to keep him with us. Each of us thinking we needed more time. At 12:53 am Monday, Oct. 12, Matt was no longer with us. We joined hands, wept, prayed over him and for ourselves. There was a kind of relief that Matt was no longer suffering, but also the realization that our suffering was just beginning.
We did know by this time that two men and their girlfriends had been arrested and were in custody. That gave us an immense sense of hope that those responsible for Matt’s death would receive due process and be punished accordingly.
What would our lives be like now, without Matt?
Logan had planned to attend the University of Wyoming. He and Matt were going to share an apartment. Both looking forward to the time they would spend together, getting to know each other once again. That hope was killed. All our hopes for Matt were killed. All the hopes and dreams that were Matt’s were killed for $20 and some twisted reason known only to his killers.
While Matt was in the hospital, many people concerned about him began to send money to help defray the medical costs. As a family, we decided we would rather use that money to make something positive come from something so completely devoid of humanity. We have started the Matthew Shepard Foundation and are hoping that it will be helpful in encouraging acceptance and embracing diversity. It is one way we can honor our son.
How have our lives changed? I can’t answer that yet. I know personally, that there is a hole in my life. I will never again experience Matt’s laugh, his wonderful hugs, his stories, hear about his ambitions for the future. There are days when I think I can’t go on. Then I remember Dennis and Logan, our families, and friends. I know their love and support will sustain me. I know Matt would be very disappointed in me if I gave up.
He would be disappointed in us all if we gave up.
Matt is no longer with us because two men learned that it was OK to hate. Somehow and somewhere they received the message that the lives of “the others” are not as worthy of respect, dignity and honor as the lives of “us”. They were given the impression that society condones or is at least indifferent to violence against “the others”. We have become a “sic” society. Silent – indifferent – complacent.
For all who ask what they can do for Matt and all the other victims of hate – my answer is to educate and bring understanding where you see hate and ignorance, bring light where you see darkness, bring freedom where there is fear, and begin to heal.
Upon reflection, we have discovered that Matt wasn’t alone at the fence. His lifelong friends were with him. You may be wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful Wyoming night sky. The same sky we would watch through our backyard telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time – one more cool, wonderful autumn day in the state that he proudly called home. He heard the wind – the ever-present Wyoming wind – for the last time.
And through it all, he was breathing in for the last time the smell of the sagebrush and pine drifting down from the Snowy Mountain Range. There was one more friend with him – one that he came to know and love through his youth at St Marks Episcopal Church in Casper, Wyoming. He had God.
I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.