Monday, December 06, 2004

 

"They came for the fags and I didn't speak up..."

I didn't see the episode of 20/20 discussed (in great detail) here, but I just had to crib David Neiwert's ending.
Matthew Shepard and hate crimes

I've been a little slow responding to the recent revisionism by ABC News' 20/20 regarding the murder of Matthew Shepard -- so far, Eric Muller, Atrios, and David Ehrenstein have all weighed in admirably.

Certainly there is serious reason to call into question ABC News' ethics. As John Wierick points out, its participation in this project was a violation of the agreement between Aaron McKinney (one of the two men who killed Shepard, and whose interviews form the basis for this report) and the Shepard family, who agreed not to pursue the death penalty.

And, as Muller has pointed out, there was nothing new uncovered in this report. It was already well established that McKinney and Russell Henderson were amped by drugs and looking for someone to rob.

Indeed, the entire thrust of ABC's "revelations" -- that it was all a drug binge, not a hate crime -- reveals how little the reporters who worked on this understand not just bias crimes but criminal law generally. One factor, such as drug use, does not cancel out another, such as a bias motive. They often in fact appear together and work in conjunction.

:::snip:::

The reality is that bias-crime statutes (which are usually sentence-enhancement laws) are typically not very helpful when it comes to murder cases, especially those involving horrific killings like Shepard's or James Byrd's in Texas. The perpetrators are likely to face the death penalty in an any event -- and how can you enhance that sentence? At best, a prosecutor may be able to push his case to a death-penalty threshold because of hate-crime circumstances surrounding a given case.

But only about 2-3 percent of all hate crimes involve murder. The vast majority of them involve assaults and lesser violent crimes, property crimes, threats and intimidation. And within that spectrum, there is clearly not only room for, but a need for, sentence enhancement.

In this respect, Matthew Shepard was a poor representative of the typical hate-crime victim. Most victims of violent gay bashing survive -- but they are rarely left unscarred, both without and within. And Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were punished about as harshly as they would have been had there been a law on Wyoming's books or in the federal statutes. Of course, they can thank the Shepard family -- upon whom Aaron McKinney and ABC News have just spat -- for that.

Indeed, the prominence of Shepard's case was more a matter of timing, appearing at a time when cases like his were coming before the national consciousness. As I explain in Death on the Fourth of July:
Certainly, there had been any number of anti-gay hate crimes committed over the preceding year that warranted the public's attention. The previous January in Springfield, Illinois, three men had kidnapped, robbed and assaulted a visiting man from Washington, D.C., because they believed (incorrectly) that he was gay. In Honolulu that August, a group of teenagers beat a heterosexual man to death at a public shower because they thought he was gay. In September in Fresno, California, a transgender woman named Chanel Chandler was stabbed to death with a broken beer bottle, and her apartment set on fire in an attempt to hide the body; two young men whose fingerprints showed up were questioned by police, but the prosecutor dropped charges when the pair refused to waive their right to a speedy trial and his evidence, including DNA work, had not arrived in time. Charges were never re-filed.

For that matter, a steady drumbeat of news about vicious crimes directed against gays and lesbians had been getting increasing play in the nation's headlines for the previous decade. The sport of "gay bashing," in which groups of young men from rural or suburban areas would invade urban gay districts and commit brutal assaults, often with baseball bats, became something of a legend during the early 1990s; though the incidents were real enough, many of them went unreported because of gay men's reluctance to report the beatings to police.

By 1998, even though only twenty-one states had hate-crimes laws against gays, lesbians, or bisexuals even on the books (Wyoming was one of seven states with no hate-crimes law at all), such crimes made up 11.6 percent of all hate crimes reported to the FBI, the third-highest such category. Since twenty-nine states were out of the picture, and many of the crimes went unreported anyway, the numbers could at best only hint at the levels of gay-bashing that were happening in reality. Indeed, one study, conducted in 1991, estimated that better than 50 percent of all gays and lesbians in America had been subjected to physical attacks motivated by their homosexuality. As early as 1987, a Department of Justice report had observed that "homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims of hate crimes." The same report noted: "Many victims of bias crimes do not report incidents because they distrust the police, feel that the incident is too minor or that the police cannot do anything about it, have a language barrier, fear retaliation by the offender or—in the case of gays and lesbians—fear public exposure."

What really stood out about these crimes was their viciousness. These weren't merely assaults: they entailed torture, mutilation, castration, sexual assault, and extremely severe beatings, and they were very likely to end in death. Gay-related homicides are notable for the "overkill" that pervades the attacks; a 1995 study found that in more than 60 percent of the homicides, there was evidence of "rage/hate-fueled extraordinary violence" that included "dismemberment, bodily and genital mutilation, use of multiple weapons, repeated blows from a blunt object, or numerous stab wounds."
In this respect, Matt Shepard was an ideal symbol of the phenomenon of gay-bashing hate crimes. The viciousness of the attack against him was fueled not merely by crystal methamphetamine but by homophobic rage. ABC News' reporters seemed to believe the two factors were mutually exclusive, rather than complementary.

That omission appears to be quite intentional. The underlying agenda appears to be to undermine public support for hate-crime laws.

Why? After all, Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert killed a Senate-approved federal hate-crime law recently, and paid no political price for it whatsoever. With an even more conservative Senate running the show, there is now almost zero prospect of a federal hate-crime law passing anytime soon.

One has to wonder if a larger rollback is in the works. So much for "compassionate" conservatism.
Nothing much to add here. People oppose "bias crime" laws only because they don't like the minority group being protected by the law. They come up with all kinds of fancy reasons to explain their opposition, but in the end it comes down to the simple, hard fact that they don't want to be told not to be biased. Bias may be a right, but it is not right, and the right-wingers - who never hesitate to attempt to use the law to impose their own idea of morality - can't stand being told that.
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