Every once in a while, someone asks why we need a federal hate crime law. They say “every crime is a hate crime” and talk about “special rights.” Hopefully, last Thursday’s post about ten anti-gay hate crimes in eleven days served as a good Exhibit A. LGBT people, both in America and around the world, are at greater risk than non-LGBTs. It is still considered somewhat acceptable in some segments of the population to attack us verbally and physically.
If Exhibit A wasn’t enough, last week we got a sad Exhibit B. The murderer of Sean Kennedy, a gay South Carolina man killed in 2007, was released from prison last Wednesday after serving less than two years. Elke Kennedy, Sean’s mother, wrote about the murder:
On May 16, 2007, at about 3:45 am, Sean was leaving a local bar in Greenville when a car pulled up beside him, a young man got out of the car, came around the car approached my son and called him faggot and then punched him so hard that it broke his face bones, he fell back and hit the asphalt. This resulted in his brain to be separated from his brain stem and ricochet in his head. Sean never had a chance. Sean’s killer got back into the car and left my son dying there. A little later he left a message on one of the girl’s phone, who knew Sean, saying: “You tell your faggot friend that when he wakes up he owes me $500 for my broken hand.
Sean was removed from life support later that day.
Last Wednesday, Elke Kennedy received an automated phone call telling her that her son’s murderer would be released from prison the following day, a week ahead of schedule and after just over a year since he was convicted.
Moller was initially charged with murder in the case and was jailed for seven months before the charges were reduced to manslaughter. In June 2008, a judge sentenced Moller to five years in prison on the manslaughter charge, suspended to three years and reduced by seven months for time he had already served.
Kennedy said, â€œThey say one thing and do something else. He should have served every single day of the already short sentence. Instead he was released from prison one week early. Where is the justice?â€
In a release on Thursday, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said, â€œThis adds insult to injury. To release a man just one-year after his sentencing in this heinous crime and to inform the victimâ€™s mother through an automated recording is despicable. Sean Kennedy was violently attacked for no other reason than his sexual orientation. This is a text book case of why we need to pass federal legislation that would bring stiffer penalties and provide local authorities with the full resources of the U.S. Justice Department to address vicious hate crimes.â€
Solomonese is right. A federal hate crime law would permit the federal government to step in if local law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges refuse to react appropriately to crime. That’s not to say, by the way, that it’s always the officials to blame.
Some prosecutors in conservative areas like South Carolina shy away from making a victimâ€™s sexual orientation a part of a trial, said Miller Shealy, an assistant professor at the Charleston School of Law who was also a former assistant solicitor in South Carolina. “Sometimes as a prosecutor, Iâ€™d just rather that information stay out,” Shealy said. “It might put my victim in a bad light [for jurors who are opposed to homosexuality] and I donâ€™t want anything to invite bias.”
Such reasoning shows why itâ€™s important to add sexual orientation to the federal hate crimes law, Finch from HRC said. “It wouldâ€™ve allowed the FBI and Department of Justice to come in and fully investigate the case,” Finch said. â€œWhen youâ€™ve got the FBI or Department of Justice down there, I think the investigation is going to be much more thorough.”
The question now is this: How long before the United States government takes LGBT people off the “okay to attack” list?