One of two men convicted of murdering gay college student Matthew Shepard five years ago wants a chance to argue for a lighter sentence, claiming he was not properly informed of his appeal options after pleading guilty.
In an agreement with prosecutors to avoid a possible death penalty, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty April 5, 1999, to felony murder and kidnapping in Shepard's death and received two consecutive life terms without parole. Henderson's current attorney, Tim Newcomb, filed a petition alleging the state's appellate lawyers "failed even to consult with [Henderson] regarding any of his rights as provided by law following a guilty plea."
Under Wyoming law, a petition for postconviction relief must be filed within five years after conviction. Newcomb's petition was filed Friday, three days before the deadline. He asks that if state district judge Jeffrey A. Donnell finds that Henderson was denied effective assistance, a one-year clock be restarted for filing a request for sentence reduction.
According to authorities, Henderson and Aaron McKinney, both 21 at the time of Shepard's murder, kidnapped, pistol-whipped, robbed, and left Shepard tied to a fence outside Laramie in October 1998. The 21-year-old University of Wyoming student died five days later at a hospital from massive head injuries. Police said the attack was motivated by robbery and Shepard's being gay. The crime drew worldwide condemnation and led to demands for stronger hate-crime laws around the country.
During his arraignment, Henderson admitted driving Shepard to a deserted area and tying him to a fence but said he tried to intervene to prevent McKinney from inflicting a more severe beating. Shortly after the hearing, McKinney's attorney said Henderson's story was fabricated in an attempt to save himself from the death penalty.
McKinney was convicted by a jury in November 1999 of felony murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping and received two consecutive life sentences for his role. To avoid the death penalty, he agreed to give up his right to appeal and not talk to reporters about the case.
Appellate counsel's failure to meet with or consult Henderson resulted in denial of his due-process rights under the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions, Newcomb is claiming. Attorneys should have discussed his right to appeal within 30 days; the voluntariness of his plea; the right to appeal on grounds of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, if appropriate; and the right to file a motion for sentence reduction within a year after his conviction, the petition stated.
Newcomb declined comment on the petition Wednesday, as did Cal Rerucha, who prosecuted Henderson and McKinney but who now works for the Sweetwater County attorney and U.S. attorney's offices. Donna Domonkos, appellate counsel for the state public defender's office, did not immediately return a call for comment. A message seeking comment from Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy, at a Virginia
firm that handles her speaking engagements, was not immediately returned.