Many people (primarily Republican politicians) objected to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act last November, for a variety of reasons. The principle opposition to the bill didn’t want sexual orientation added as a protected class.
However the law that Congress passed and President Obama signed did much more than extend federal protection to the victims of crimes committed because of their sexual orientation. It also expanded the scope of the prior 1969 federal hate crimes law, which previously was restricted only to hate crimes committed against victims “engaging in a federally-protected activity, like voting or going to school.”
The Matthew Shepard Act as it has been come to be known also gives the Department of Justice and the FBI “greater ability to engage in hate crimes investigations that local authorities choose not to pursue.”
That last point is critical, and we are starting to see the results of increasing federal protections for the victims of these acts of terror.
For one example, consider the case of Ronald Pudder. Pudder committed arson against a small African American church. When confronted by videotape evidence of his actions Pudder confessed his guilt. Evidence that his crime was racially motivated was not hard to find:
The two-count indictment against Pudder was detailed at a news conference Friday with the nation’s top civil rights attorney, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He said the government was determined to deter a rash of copycat crimes.
“Hate crimes reflect a cancer of the soul,” Perez said. “They are designed not only to injure the particular victim or victims, but to send a message to the community: a message of fear, an effort to divide communities along racial or religious lines.”
On Monday, Pudder pled guilty as part of a plea bargain in which Federal authorities will seek a sentence of 41-51 months.
Hate crimes do indeed leave scars, whether the crime is the directed against Christians, Jews or Muslims, members of the LGBT community or members of racial or ethnic minorities like this disabled Navaho man who had a swastika burned into his arm with a coat hanger, among other things done to him in Farmington New Mexico.
Federal prosecutors say they were able to bring the case because the 2009 law eliminated a requirement that a victim must be engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or attending school, for hate crime charges to be levelled.
In the past many local authorities simply refused to prosecute such violent acts as hate crimes even if their state had an adequate hate crimes law on the books.
Now we don’t have to rely upon local authorities to bring these charges when they are appropriate.
And that, my friends, is progress, small though it may seem to some.
President Obama with Louvon Harris, her sister Betty Byrd Boatner (both sisters of James Byrd, Jr) and Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, after he spoke in honor of the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr, Hate Crimes Prevention Act during a reception at the White House, October 28, 2009