NEW YORK (AP) — Twenty years after Matthew Shepard’s death , the federal hate crimes law bearing his name is viewed with mixed feelings by LGBT and anti-violence organizations that lobbied over nearly a decade for its passage.
President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law on Oct. 28, 2009, just over 11 years after Shepard — a gay 21-year-old college student — died from injuries suffered in a brutal beating by two Wyoming men.
The act expanded the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It strengthened other aspects of the old law and provided funding and technical assistance to state and local jurisdictions to bolster their investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
The U.S. Justice Department says that as of this summer, it had used the Shepard/Byrd law to indict 88 defendants in 42 hate crimes cases, with 64 convictions to date. It provided a breakdown on the nature of recent hate crimes cases, saying seven of the 32 convictions since January 2017 involved crimes targeting gay and transgender people. A 2017 report compiled for the Matthew Shepard Foundation documented 25 cases prosecuted under the Shepard/Byrd law through mid-2017; nine of them involved LGBT victims.
Some activists have been disappointed by the relatively low number of anti-LGBT cases prosecuted under the law.
But David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, considers it a success because of its role in motivating state and local prosecutors to take anti-LGBT violence more seriously.
“Even when these prosecutors don’t bring a hate crimes charge, they’re pushing to solve these crimes,” he said.
Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother and co-founder of the foundation bearing his name, said the federal law has been helpful, but she hopes for further steps — requiring law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to federal authorities and providing better training for officers handling the cases.
“We are seeking to create environments where victims of hate violence do not fear re-victimization by the police,” she said by email
The New York City Anti-Violence Project is among the groups that initially supported the Shepard/Byrd law but now have misgivings.
“There has been a real transformation about how we think about ending violence and what justice looks like,” said the group’s director of organizing, Audacia Ray. “We wanted the system to fix things through punishment. We now believe punishment doesn’t end violence — it perpetuates it.”
Ray said anti-LGBT violence could be reduced through “economic justice” and better housing options for marginalized LGBT people.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 30 states now have laws covering crimes based on sexual orientation, including 18 that also cover anti-transgender crimes.
Five states, including Wyoming, have no hate crimes laws of their own; 15 states have such laws — but don’t cover anti-LGBT-crimes.
Jenny Pizer, law and policy director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, said the state and federal laws have proven to be important in both practical and symbolic ways but are also a disappointment to many “because they only do so much.”
She questioned their deterrent effect on perpetrators consumed by “irrational hatred” but suggested they had a positive effect on state and local law enforcement.
She also said the laws may have helped LGBT people feel less marginalized by social stigma.
“They don’t transform attitudes overnight, or even over decades for some people,” Pizer said. “But they do help, and that matters.”