Ed. Note: This blog is cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Justice
“Using new tools and authorities, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, we’ve improved our ability to safeguard our civil rights and pursue justice for those who are victimized because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. We will continue working to guarantee that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected.” - Attorney General Eric Holder testifying before Congress May 15, 2013
In 1998, Matthew Shepard— a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming was robbed, tortured, tied to a fence along a country road and left to die by two men who offered him a ride home from a local bar.
That same year, James Byrd Jr.—a 49-year-old African-American man living in Jasper, Texas—also accepted a ride home from three men. They drove him to the remote edge of town where they beat him severely, tied him by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck, and dragged him to his death.
The investigation into Matthew Shepard’s death found strong evidence that his attackers targeted him because he was gay. In the case of James Byrd Jr., the three men responsible for his killing were well-known white supremacists. His brutal murder stands as one of the most nightmarish recent incidents of racially motivated violence.
But while the men responsible for the Shepard and Byrd killings were later convicted of murder, none of them were prosecuted for committing a hate crime. At the time these murders were committed, neither Wyoming nor Texas had a hate crimes law, and existing federal hate crimes protections did not include violent acts based on the victim’s sexual orientation and only covered racial violence against those engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or attending school.
Four years ago today, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act. This landmark legislation, championed by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, greatly expanded the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes.
The law enables the Justice Department to prosecute crimes motivated by race, color, religion and national origin without having to show that the defendant was engaged in a federally protected activity. The Shepard-Byrd Act also empowers the department to prosecute crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability as hate crimes.
The law also marked the first time that the words, “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” appeared in the U.S. Code.
Under the leadership of Attorney General Holder, the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country have used the law to address the most serious hate crimes. Over the last four years, 44 people in 16 states have been convicted under the Shepard-Byrd Act for their discrimination and crimes against others on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Just this month, the Civil Rights Division brought federal hate crimes charges against two Latino men associated with the Compton 155 street gang in California. These men attacked a 17-year-old African-American who was walking down a street in the city of Compton—striking him in the head with a metal pipe—and pointed a gun at another African-American juvenile who was present. Both attackers admitted their actions were substantially motivated by race and color.
Earlier this year, a Justice Department investigation and prosecution in response to the beating of an Atlanta man resulted in the first conviction in Georgia under the sexual orientation provision of the Shepard-Byrd Act. In this case, two men pleaded guilty to assaulting a 20-year-old gay man as he left a grocery store in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood. Video footage of the incident showed not only physical violence but also the use of anti-gay epithets. The two men were sentenced to serve 10 months in prison on federal hate crimes charges as well as five years on state charges for aggravated assault, robbery by force, and theft by receiving stolen property and obstruction.
In addition to these enforcement efforts, the Civil Rights Division has held trainings for thousands of law enforcement officials – federal, state and local – to ensure that first responders to an assault or other act of violence know what questions to ask and what evidence to gather at the scene to allow prosecutors to make an informed assessment of whether a case should be prosecuted as a hate crime.
Four years after the passage of the Shepard-Byrd Act, and more than a decade after the brutal murders of the men for whom it was named, prosecuting hate crimes remains a top priority for the President, the Attorney General and the Civil Rights Division.
Jocelyn Samuels is Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice.