The mur­der that changed Amer­ica

Twenty years af­ter the death of Matthew Shep­ard, LARA SCHWARTZ looks back on how it trans­formed Amer­ica’s at­ti­tudes to hate crimes

The New European - - Agenda - Lara Schwartz is a lec­turer at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity School of Pub­lic Af­fairs; this ar­ti­cle also ap­pears at the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

On an Oc­to­ber night in 1998, Matthew Shep­ard, a 21-year-old stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming, was beaten, driven to a re­mote field, tied to a fence and left to die. The cy­clist who found him re­ported that the un­con­scious young man’s face was cov­ered with blood ex­cept where tears had washed the skin clean.

Peo­ple gath­ered for vig­ils na­tion­wide; the press flocked to the area to cover the story; six days af­ter the at­tack Shep­hard died of his in­juries.

It soon be­came clear that he had not been a ran­dom vic­tim of a sav­age crime. He had been mur­dered be­cause he was gay. One of his killers, Aaron Mckin­ney, would de­scribe Shep­ard as “a queer” and a “fag” in his con­fes­sion. He would later state that Shep­ard “needed killing”. Shep­ard was far from the first per­son to be tar­geted for vi­o­lence be­cause of his iden­tity, nor would he be the last. In fact, ear­lier that year, an African-Amer­i­can named James Byrd, Jr. had been mur­dered by three white su­prem­a­cists who chained him to a pickup truck and dragged him for three miles.

But their sto­ries and their fam­i­lies’ ad­vo­cacy raised aware­ness and would lead to a fed­eral law that bears their names: the Matthew Shep­ard and

James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Preven­tion Act. As a lawyer with the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, I worked on the leg­is­la­tion from 2002 un­til it passed in 2009 and Barack Obama signed it into law.

Twenty years af­ter Shep­ard’s mur­der, hate crime leg­is­la­tion has come a long way. None­the­less, re­ports of of­fences have ticked up in re­cent years, and those try­ing to en­force these laws still face a num­ber of ob­sta­cles.

Be­fore the Matthew Shep­ard Act passed, many Amer­i­can states did have hate crime laws on the books. Cal­i­for­nia’s hate crime law, for ex­am­ple, has in­cluded sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion since 1984. How­ever, laws vary be­tween states; many don’t in­clude sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and most don’t in­clude gen­der iden­tity. Some state statutes cover prop­erty crimes such as ar­son mo­ti­vated by bias.

The Matthew Shep­ard Act makes it a fed­eral crime to com­mit cer­tain vi­o­lent acts mo­ti­vated by race, colour, re­li­gion, na­tional ori­gin, dis­abil­ity, gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity. The act also au­tho­rises the fed­eral govern­ment to as­sist lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies in­ves­ti­gat­ing hate crimes with fund­ing, man­power and lab work.

This is an im­por­tant as­pect of the leg­is­la­tion. Pros­e­cut­ing these crimes can be ex­pen­sive and chal­leng­ing, and many com­mu­ni­ties don’t have ad­e­quate re­sources. In­ves­ti­gat­ing and pros­e­cut­ing Shep­ard’s mur­der was so ex­pen­sive that the lo­cal sher­iff ’s of­fice had to tem­po­rar­ily lay off em­ploy­ees.

When Congress was con­sid­er­ing the hate crimes bill, most ar­gu­ments against its pas­sage cen­tred on its pro­tec­tion of LGBT peo­ple. Many op­po­nents said they would sup­port the bill – so long as it left out LGBT peo­ple.

They claimed that it would crim­i­nalise thoughts, with pros­e­cu­tors un­fairly us­ing some­one’s prior state­ments

about gay peo­ple as ev­i­dence that a crime was a hate crime. If this were the case, they ar­gued, then peo­ple would es­sen­tially be jailed for their speech and opin­ions. Oth­ers claimed that be­cause the law in­cluded sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, min­is­ters would be pros­e­cuted for preach­ing the gospel, which they be­lieved con­demns ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and lim­its mar­riage to a union of a man and a woman.

In truth, these fears are un­founded: The fed­eral law is lim­ited to crimes that re­sult in death or se­ri­ous bod­ily in­jury. In the end, the coali­tion sup­port­ing the bill held firm about in­clud­ing pro­tec­tions for

LGBT Amer­i­cans. In fact, in 2007 the bill’s spon­sors added ex­plicit pro­tec­tion for trans­gen­der peo­ple.

It is dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish ex­actly how many hate crimes are com­mit­ted in the US. Many agen­cies fail to re­port them, or un­der-re­port in­stances. Fur­ther­more, about half of bias-mo­ti­vated crimes aren’t re­ported to po­lice at all. Af­ter all, the tar­gets of such crimes are of­ten marginalised. They might mistrust law en­force­ment or wish to avoid ‘out­ing’ them­selves. Hate crimes against peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are of­ten com­mit­ted by peo­ple the vic­tim knows, a fac­tor that can also de­ter re­port­ing.

Prov­ing bias as a mo­ti­va­tion is also dif­fi­cult. A pros­e­cu­tor might con­clude it’s bet­ter to en­ter into a plea agree­ment for as­sault than go to trial to get a hate crime con­vic­tion. Fi­nally, though hate crimes laws cover crimes of vi­o­lence or prop­erty de­struc­tion, hate speech lies in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent realm. While it can make life painful for the peo­ple it tar­gets, hate­ful speech is pro­tected by the First Amend­ment, whether it’s Ku Klux Klan marches or protesters hold­ing signs read­ing “Thank God for Dead Sol­diers” near a mil­i­tary fu­neral.

Ul­ti­mately, the most pow­er­ful as­pect of Amer­ica’s hate crime leg­is­la­tion may be the mes­sage it sends.

A hate crime has a rip­ple ef­fect: It tells those who iden­tify with the vic­tim that they aren’t wel­come in a com­mu­nity and stokes fears that they may be next. Hate crimes laws are an un­equiv­o­cal state­ment that it is un­ac­cept­able for any­one to live in fear of be­ing tar­geted for who they are. The strength of this mes­sage – and the po­tent sym­bol­ism of the leg­is­la­tion – is one rea­son the Matthew Shep­ard Act took 11 years to pass.

HATE CRIME: The spot in Wy­oming where gay stu­dent Matthew Shep­ard, be­low, was found

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