Do criminals motivated by hatred get off easy when there are no hate crime laws? It is a question worth considering, because that was the implicit argument behind the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Act of 2009, which passed the House last week and now heads to the Senate.
Several victims of hate crimes were mentioned by members of Congress in the debate on the House floor. Among the victims mentioned during the debate:
– James Bird, whose brutal murder by dragging in Texas dominated headlines in the 2000 presidential race. There was no hate crimes law in Texas at that time, but of the three men involved in this racially motivated killing, two were executed and the third received a life sentence.
– Ryan Skipper, whose stabbing in Florida was motivated by his sexual orientation, according to law enforcement. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D, Fla.) misled on the House floor when she said that “Because there was no hate crime law with which to charge Ryan’s killer in Florida, only one of Ryan’s attackers has been convicted, and that was of a lesser charge.” The reason only one has been convicted is that the other faces the death penalty when he goes on trial in October. The first suspect, whose claims of being a mere accomplice were disbelieved by the jury, was convicted in February of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
– Matthew Shepard, whose mother has been active in helping pass the current bill, was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo. in 1998. Witnesses testified at the time that he was killed in part because of his homosexuality. Defendant Aaron McKinney tried to use a “gay panic” defense that was disallowed by the judge. Shepard’s killers were each given two consecutive life sentences. McKinney may have only avoided the death penalty because of Shepards’ parents intervening.
– Lawrence King, a 15-year-old who was murdered after he said he was gay and began wearing makeup to school. Courts have ruled that Brandon McInerny, his alleged killer, will be tried as an adult in California. He faces a 50-year to life term if convicted. The state’s hate crimes statute could add one to three years to his sentence.
– Angie Zapata, who was beaten to death by a lover who discovered Zapata had been born a man. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D, Wisc.), a sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor that “Thankfully, Angie’s killer was brought to justice under a State hate crimes law.” In fact, the murderer received a mandatory life sentence without parole for the act of murder itself. The most anyone can receive under Colorado’s hate-crime statute is three years in prison.
Again, these were the victims mentioned on the House floor. Their killers received or face sentences of life, death, and 50 years. Only in the California case could a hate-crimes law actually affect the penalty — in the Colorado case, it is effectively symbolic.
It is entirely possible that there are cases out there where hate criminals get away with slaps on the wrist, but I could find no such case presented on the House floor last week as the bill’s proponents made their case. Given the bill’s other problems, this should prompt some reflection as to its rationale.