The Laramie Project

The Laramie Project

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Aaron McKinney, a Laramie resident, is one of Matthew Shepard’s murderers. Aaron, who admits he killed Matthew with Russell Henderson because Matthew allegedly tried to hit on him, clearly harbors intense feelings of homophobia. Several characters indicate that Aaron, who was a new father at the time of the murder, had a drug problem. Aaron is sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes, and the play prominently features discussion of his trial. Aaron and Russell both become a central focus of the town’s conversation surrounding justice and punishment as townspeople debate whether they feel the two men deserve the death penalty for their crimes, and whether society is partially to blame for Aaron’s actions. Aaron’s life becomes a flashpoint for questions about violence, punishment, and who is to blame for homophobia.

Aaron McKinney Quotes in The Laramie Project

The The Laramie Project quotes below are all either spoken by Aaron McKinney or refer to Aaron McKinney. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dramatists Play Service edition of The Laramie Project published in 2001.
Act 1: Finding Matthew Shepard Quotes

They were both my patients and they were two kids. I took care of both of them…of both their bodies. And… for a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. How we are all his kids…Our bodies…Our souls…And I felt a great deal of compassion…for both of them…

Related Characters: Dr. Cantway (speaker), Matthew Shepard, Aaron McKinney
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Dr. Cantway describes his feelings when he realized that he had treated both Matthew Shepard and his murderer, Aaron McKinney, on the same day at the hospital. Matthew was brought to the hospital in unstable condition after his attack, while Aaron came to the emergency room earlier in the morning for minor unrelated injuries.

Dr. Cantway explains that he felt intense compassion for both Aaron and Matthew when he realized that he had treated both young men—or as he calls them, “kids.” Dr. Cantway compares his feelings of empathy for both Matthew and Aaron as nearly god-like, saying he believes that God feels immense love for “all his kids.” Dr. Cantway’s experience treating both men is a highly spiritual one, and in his understanding of religion, which clearly shapes Cantway’s own morality, God is a universally loving figure rather than one of punishment and exclusion.

When Dr. Cantway uses the word “kids” for both Aaron and Matthew, he deemphasizes Aaron’s individual responsibility in the assault by drawing attention to his youth and implying that Aaron may be modeling his behavior after other, older people who raised him. Dr. Cantway’s view of Aaron could be perceived as too generous, as it does not really hold Aaron accountable for his actions, but it also exemplifies the universal empathy that the playwrights seem to be trying to encourage throughout the play.

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Act 2: Live and Let Live Quotes

Some people are saying he made a pass at them. You don’t pick up regular people. I’m not excusing their actions, but it made me feel better because it was partially Matthew Shepard’s fault and partially the guys who did it… you know maybe it’s fifty-fifty.

Related Characters: Murdock Cooper (speaker), Matthew Shepard, Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Murdock Cooper tells the playwrights what he has heard about the lead-up to Matthew’s murder, saying that rumors are flying that Matthew hit on Aaron and Russell and that’s why they killed him.

While there is no confirmation of this rumor, Murdock Cooper chooses to believe in it. He says that it does not excuse Aaron and Russell’s actions, but he also says that it makes him “feel better” to believe the idea that Aaron and Russell killed Matthew because he tried to “[make] a pass at them.” In Murdock’s mind, Matthew having hit on Aaron and Russell would make him half to blame for what happened, implying that openly expressed homosexuality is a moral transgression on par with murder. Murdock also clearly views LGBT people as abnormal, a view he reveals when he states that LGBT people should not pick up “regular” people, and so suggests that LGBT people are outside of what is “regular” and normative.

Rather than actually being interested in the truth of what happened that night, Murdock seems attracted to a narrative that allows him to make sense of senseless violence without having to confront the culture of homophobia that he seems comfortable in. The playwrights include this quote to show how the culture of homophobia in Laramie both inspires violence and can also be used to condone or excuse it.

Act 2: Seeing Matthew Quotes

And quite frankly I wanted to lash out at somebody. Not at Matthew, please understand that, not one of us was mad at Matthew. But we maybe wanted to squeeze McKinney’s head off. And I think about Henderson. And, you know, two absolutely human beings cause so much grief for so many people.

Related Characters: Marge Murray (speaker), Matthew Shepard, Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, Reggie Fluty
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Marge Murray describes her feelings of anger and grief after learning that, while helping Matthew into the ambulance, her daughter Reggie had been exposed to HIV.

Marge’s fury and worry for her daughter are focused on Aaron and Russell rather than on Matthew, indicating that she has a reasonable view of where the blame lies for Reggie’s exposure. Notably, HIV/AIDS is an affliction that plagues the gay community in particular and that historically has been used to fuel homophobic views. Marge’s insistence that she blames Aaron and Russell for hurting Matthew and her daughter rather than Matthew for having HIV, therefore, represents an anti-homophobic stance on a subject that can often be a flashpoint for homophobic discourse.

On the other hand, Marge’s anger manifests itself in the desire to inflict physical violence on Aaron and Russell. Marge seems to have a fairly high tolerance for violence in general, as she refers to violence fairly casually during several of her interviews. While Marge’s anger is certainly understandable, the play takes up a generally anti-violent stance, suggesting that Marge’s desire to hurt Aaron and Russell is not the appropriate outlet for her anger.

Act 2: Shannon and Jen Quotes

“You guys both went to Laramie High?”
“Yeah. Can’t you tell? We’re a product of our society.”

Related Characters: Shannon (speaker), Stephen Belber (speaker), Aaron McKinney, Jen
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Stephen Belber, who is interviewing two friends of Aaron McKinney’s after running into them at a bar, asks if “you guys” went to Laramie High School. It is unclear from the context whether Stephen means only Shannon and Jen or whether he is including Aaron in “you guys,” but, regardless, Shannon seems to speak for all three of them when she responds “Yeah. Can’t you tell?”

Shannon’s affirmation and her comment that they are “a product of [their] society” suggests that Shannon views herself and her friends as having been heavily shaped by the culture they were raised in. Shannon’s dry tone also seems to imply that she feels somewhat disserviced by how her life turned out as a result, perhaps because Shannon struggles with perpetual poverty and a drug problem. If the reader believes Shannon’s comment that she, Jen, and Aaron are “a product of their society,” then Aaron’s own culpability must be viewed in light of the culture he grew up in. Shannon’s comment shifts responsibility for whatever happened to Matthew from Aaron as an individual to the greater Laramie community that made him who he is.

Act 2: Lifestyle 2 Quotes

Now, those two people, the accused… I think they deserve the death penalty…Now as for the victim, I know that that lifestyle is legal, but I will tell you one thing. I hope that Matthew Shepard as he was tied to that fence that he had time to reflect on a moment when someone had spoken the word of the Lord to him—and that before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle.

Related Characters: The Baptist Minister (speaker), Matthew Shepard, Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, Amanda Gronich
Related Symbols: The Fence
Page Number: 67-68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, The Baptist Minister explains his views on Matthew’s murder during a phone call with Amanda Gronich. The Minister, who was initially hesitant to speak with members of the theater company, opens up to Amanda after she tells him she attended his church service that Sunday.

The Baptist Minister expresses complicated views of both Aaron and Russell and of Matthew. He makes it clear that he condemns Aaron and Russell’s violence in itself, even going so far as to say that they deserve to be put to death. At the same time, however, the Minister, who is openly and extremely anti-LGBT, says that he hopes that Matthew “had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle” “before he slipped into a coma.” While the Baptist Minister disapproves of Aaron and Russell’s murder, he also seems to imply that Matthew’s death is a kind of just and divine retribution for his sexuality (which the Minister minimizes as a “lifestyle”). This reflects the Baptist Minister’s vision of God as more inclined to vengeful punishment than a loving forgiveness.

The Baptist Minister’s seemingly contradictory moral juggling certainly reveals the his extreme homophobia, but it also shows how he views violence as the appropriate form of justice for perceived wrongdoing (both for Aaron and Russell in the form of the death penalty, and for Matthew in the form of his murder). As the question of violence as punishment recurs in later discussions of the death penalty, the Baptist Minister serves as a warning of how orientation towards violence as punishment often reflects ideologies that center hatred and judgment rather than compassion and love.

Act 3: A Death Penalty Case Quotes

I think right now our most important teachers must be Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They have to be our teachers. How did you learn? What did we as a society do to teach you that? See, I don’t know if many people will let them be their teacher. I think it would be wonderful if the judge said, “In addition to your sentence, you must tell your story.”

Related Characters: Father Roger Schmit (speaker), Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which follows a series of quotes revealing different characters’ opinions on the death penalty, Father Roger talks about what he sees as appropriate punishment for Aaron and Russell’s actions. Rather than supporting the death penalty like the Baptist Minister, Father Roger hopes that Aaron and Russell will be kept alive and required to tell their stories.

Father Roger describes the need to allow Russell and Aaron to be society’s teachers, suggesting that they help Laramie answer the question “what did we as a society do to teach you that?” Father clearly implies that he believes that society at large shares the blame for Matthew’s murder, and he suggests that Laramie must try to discover exactly how they are complicit in order to change. Father Roger, worries, however, that people will not “let [Aaron and Russell] be their teacher,” suggesting that people may be afraid to confront their collective culpability and may prefer instead to act like the case is an open-and-shut issue. Father Roger’s insistence on the importance of listening to Aaron and Russell’s story emphasizes the importance of stories in general to change social values and norms, and it also suggests that the use of the death penalty as punishment may prevent essential changes from being made in the Laramie community.

Father Roger’s view of storytelling also suggests that storytelling can serve not only as a source of knowledge for the Laramie community, but also that it could be a kind of atonement for Aaron and Russell. Considering The Laramie Project’s role telling the story of the entire community, the play might itself be considered to be a kind of collective atonement for the Laramie community’s collective responsibility for the homophobic culture that indirectly caused Matthew’s murder.

Act 3: Dennis Shepard’s Statement Quotes

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… I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.

Related Characters: Dennis Shepard (speaker), Matthew Shepard, Aaron McKinney
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which is an excerpt from the statement Dennis Shepard made during Aaron’s sentencing, Dennis Shepard explains the family’s reason for asking for a life sentence for Aaron rather than the death penalty.

Dennis says that, although he would really like to see Aaron die, he is going to grant Aaron life in Matthew’s memory. Dennis emphasizes how difficult it is for him to refuse the death penalty, suggesting that mercy and non-violence, rather than being a show of weakness, are actually a very difficult path to follow, especially in the face of an injustice like what Aaron did to Matthew. Dennis, however, says that it is “time to begin the healing process,” suggesting that the death penalty would prevent the community from healing and moving on from the tragedy (this is possibly in part because it would mean a long, drawn-out appeals case that would keep the community under national scrutiny). By choosing to give Aaron life imprisonment, the Shepard family chooses not to punish violence with violence, and in doing so they reject ideologies like the Baptist Minister’s that valorize violence and hatred (and which, notably, tend to be the same philosophies that discriminate against LGBT people).

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Aaron McKinney Character Timeline in The Laramie Project

The timeline below shows where the character Aaron McKinney appears in The Laramie Project. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1: The Fireside
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Matt Galloway says that on that night at around eleven forty-five, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Matthew’s murderers, came into the bar looking unkempt and acting rude. They... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Matt Galloway says he saw Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson talking to Matthew Shepard after they came back into the main part... (full context)
Theater and Representation Theme Icon
...case. He says that he saw Matthew leave with two people he presumed to be Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Matt Mickelson then tells the interviewers to talk with the DJ, Shadow,... (full context)
Act 1: McKinney and Henderson
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
In this moment, an Anonymous Friend of Aaron McKinney since childhood describes how shocked he was to hear of the murder. The friend says... (full context)
Act 1: Finding Matthew Shepard
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aaron Kreifels describes finding Matthew Shepard tied to the fence where Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson left him to die. Aaron Kreifels had gone for a bike ride... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Theater and Representation Theme Icon
Dr. Cantway notes that, strangely, Aaron McKinney came into the emergency room for an unrelated problem just before they brought in Matthew... (full context)
Act 2: A Laramie Man
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Media and Community Theme Icon
...and anger. Matt Mickelson and Matt Galloway decide to go to the arraignment to identify Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. (full context)
Act 2: The Essential Facts
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
A reporter states that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson have been charged with assaulting Matthew Shepard. Catherine Connolly then describes how... (full context)
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Media and Community Theme Icon
The judge states that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson met Matthew Shepard at the bar and then drove him to the... (full context)
Act 2: Live and Let Live
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...that Matthew Shepard is partially to blame for his own death because he came onto Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Murdock says that believing this makes him “feel better.” (full context)
Act 2: The Gem City of the Plains
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Media and Community Theme Icon
Theater and Representation Theme Icon
...that Wyoming has just as many bigots as New York or California. Another newsperson describes Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson’s poverty growing up. Another reporter insists that hatred like what happened to... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Media and Community Theme Icon
...see as the media maligning the whole community for a crime two individuals committed. Next, Aaron McKinney ’s father Bill McKinney says that he thinks the murder would not be as big... (full context)
Act 2: Seeing Matthew
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
The narrator gives the audience an update on the case against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, stating that they both pled not guilty. Their girlfriends were charged with... (full context)
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
...case, talking about how he worked extremely hard to make sure there was no way Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson could be acquitted. Then Reggie Fluty, one of the first responders on... (full context)
Act 2: Shannon and Jen
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Theater and Representation Theme Icon
...at the bar where Matthew Shepard was last seen when he encountered two friends of Aaron McKinney . One of the women, Shannon, tells Stephen that she thought what happened was “really... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Shannon implies, though, that she can understand how, if Aaron McKinney were high on meth, he could have thought about robbing someone. Jen agrees, saying that... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Stephen Belber then asks what the women would say to Aaron McKinney if they saw him, and Jen says she would ask why Aaron had done what... (full context)
Act 2: Christmas
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
An inmate named Andrew Gomez, who was in prison with Aaron McKinney , talks about how he and Aaron ate their Christmas dinners together. Andrew asked Aaron... (full context)
Act 2: Lifestyle 2
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...congregation. The minister says that the congregation had been trying to help Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney for years, and he is providing spiritual guidance to one of them, who is on... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Theme Icon
The Baptist Minister notes that he thinks Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson deserve the death penalty. The minister also says, however, that he hopes... (full context)
Act 2: H-O-P-E
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
...Belber tells Doc O’Connor that the interview team will be back for Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney ’s criminal trials. Doc O’Connor states that he hopes they don’t put Aaron and Russell... (full context)
Act 3: A Death Penalty Case
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Act Three opens with the prosecuting lawyer of Aaron McKinney ’s case, Cal Rerucha, talking about Aaron’s impending trial. Cal tells the interviewers that it... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Theater and Representation Theme Icon
Zubaida Ula says she defers to the Shepard family’s wishes, but she knew Aaron McKinney in elementary school, and so she has a hard time with the idea of putting... (full context)
Act 3: Aaron McKinney
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
This moment consists of the dialogue from a taped recording of Aaron McKinney ’s confession, which was played during the trial. In the conversation, Rob Debree tells Aaron... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Rob Debree asks how Aaron McKinney met Matthew Shepard, and Aaron says that Matthew asked them for a ride home. Rob... (full context)
Act 3: Gay Panic
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Zackie Salmon talks about how, when the defense team tried to argue that Aaron McKinney killed Matthew Shepard because Matthew hit on him, she felt sick. Zackie thought it was... (full context)
Act 3: Aaron McKinney (continued)
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
As Aaron McKinney ’s interrogation continues, Rob Debree asks if Matthew tried to defend himself, and Aaron indicates... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Rob Debree suggests that Aaron McKinney does not like gay people, and Aaron confirms that no, he doesn’t. When Rob suggests... (full context)
Act 3: The Verdict
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
...has reached a verdict, and the foreperson of the jury announces that the jury finds Aaron McKinney guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and first-degree murder. (full context)
Act 3: Dennis Shepard’s Statement
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
The narrator states that, since Aaron McKinney was found guilty of felony murder, he qualified for the death penalty. Aaron’s defense team... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...that although Matthew officially died in the hospital, he truly died tied the fence after Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson’s attack. However, Dennis says, Matthew was not alone, thanks to God and... (full context)
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Violence, Punishment, and Justice Theme Icon
Media and Community Theme Icon
...the death penalty, and so does he. Dennis even says that he wants to see Aaron McKinney die. However, Dennis says that he and Judy decided to show mercy and ask for... (full context)
Act 3: Epilogue
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Theme Icon
...that he feels that meaningful change did not occur in Laramie. Jonas believes that, once Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were convicted, the townspeople stopped talking about Matthew’s death. Jonas notes that,... (full context)