Matthew Shepard was 21 years old in 1998 when two men beat him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in a rural, remote area of Wyoming. Shepard was discovered 18 hours after the attack and survived for five days before succumbing to severe brain injuries.
Shepard was attacked because he was among the thousands of Americans who identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Tomorrow, hate-crimes legislation bearing his name will be up for a vote in the House. The Matthew Shepard Act, also known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was introduced by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in March and in the Senate in April. The act would add protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity (as well as disability) to existing hate-crimes laws that address violent acts perpetrated because of the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin.
Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress argued last month in her column, “Standing Up Against Hate Crimes,” that “The United States cannot continue to allow cases of violence based on bigotry to go under-addressed and under-reported.” Especially since “gays and lesbians are increasingly in the public spotlight due to the marriage equality debate, and the number of hate crimes against them has spiked in some parts of the country.”
State and local officials with limited manpower and resources need assistance if they’re to protect their vulnerable communities. Measures such as those included in the hate-crimes bill would go a long way toward giving states and towns the assistance they need.
If existing hate-crimes laws are expanded to include the new categories of protected groups, the FBI and Department of Justice will have the authority and jurisdiction to aid state and local officials investigating and prosecuting hate crimes perpetrated on people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also allow federal authorities to take a direct role in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes cases that local authorities are not willing or able to take on.
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