news Sports Opinions arts variety interact Wildcat On-Line QuickNav

Harder Justice for Hate

By René Alegria
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 24, 1999
Send comments to:


Wildcat File Photo
Arizona Daily Wildcat

One of two men accused of murdering Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard will stand trial today. The young man will again be the focus of national spotlight for allegedly crucifying Matthew Shepard to a wooden fence, bludgeoning him for hours with the butt of a gun, leaving Shepard alone on the Wyoming plain to die a slow death. Apparently, the two men murdered Shepard because of his sexual orientation. Shepard was gay. The murder was a hate crime.

We live in a society where hate crimes are not given the prosecutorial attention they require. In many states throughout this country, particularly brutal crimes occur and are treated by the law in very general terms. They are not singled out as savage, and are lost as small cogs in our country's bureaucratic justice machine.

By most people's standards murder is murder, so why is there something so nightmarish about hate crimes that motivates us to feel outrage for a singularly hate-driven action? Simply stated, hate crimes threaten society as a whole. For this reason alone, those who commit hate crimes must receive harsher sentences.

The horrific drama of the Shepard murder is difficult to fathom. Imagine for a moment having to endure what Shepard did. Shepard most likely was dazed, bloody, and in pain. He most certainly was alone. One wonders what kind of person is filled with so much hate, that they are capable of acting out in such a manner. Many people's mind's race with thoughts as to why these men did what they did.

Is it their ignorance? Are they the end-product of years of economic frustration, manifesting itself through violent action? Or were they really just driven by pure hatred? The answer to this question will never truthfully be known, yet most likely, all of the above had a hand in contributing to the murder.

Tragically, we can do nothing about Matthew Shepard. What can be done concerns the law, and how it is we sentence individuals who commit such heinous crimes. A hate crime not only injures one individual, or destroys one single piece of property, but also causes great emotional trauma. A hate crime intimidates, and transforms a community.

Attacking one homosexual for being a homosexual threatens all homosexuals. Attacking one black for being black threatens all blacks. Attacking one Jew for being a Jew threatens all Jews. Hate crimes increase tension within a community, incite copycat crimes, and provoke retaliation.

Many states realized this, yet absurdly, many have not. Hate crimes have steadily increased in the last 10 years, and state legislature's must act accordingly to ensure that those who commit them are severely punished. In 1997 the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that sexual orientation was the motivation for 14 percent of all reported hate crimes. That percentage was projected to increase. Such a high percentage of all hate crimes deserves action and legislation.

Forty states have some kind of hate crime legislation, generally laws that increase fines and add jail time for crimes motivated by hatred of a specific group. Of those states, only 21 have laws that specify sexual orientation as a category for protection. Ten states, largely in the South and Southwest, do not have any hate crime legislation at all.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah have defeated bills that would add sexual orientation to categories of people protected by existing hate crime laws. In Wyoming, the state where the Matthew Shepard tragedy occurred, legislators defeated all efforts to pass that state's first hate crime law. Shepard's murder had no effect on Wyoming legislators, or their law.

Thankfully, lawmakers are renewing their campaign for an expanded federal hate crime statute, hoping outrage over recent killings will spur passage of the bill.

Under the proposed bill, current law would be expanded so the Justice Department could prosecute crimes based on a person's sex, sexual orientation or disability. Now, the statute only covers crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.

Recently, The Associated Press reported two Alabama men were charged with beating to death a gay textile worker and burning his body on a pile of tires. These cases occur every day in some form or another, and citizens who live in states where hate crimes bills are not law must live with the fear of knowing their harassers, attackers, and sometimes killers will be charged with leniency; leniency absent during the murder of Matthew Shepard.