Mother of slain student pleads for hate crimes bill
Opponents say measure 'sets up special classes of victims'
May 11, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Choking back tears, the mother of an openly gay college student murdered in Wyoming pleaded with lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation designed to help prevent hate crimes.
"My son Matthew was the victim of a brutal hate crime, and I believe this legislation is necessary to make sure no family again has to suffer like mine," Judy Shepard testified.
Shepard, whose son Matthew died last year from injuries suffered when he was severely beaten and left tied to a fence, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to press for passage of a measure that would allow the federal government to prosecute such cases.
"I know this measure is not a cure-all, and it won't stop all hate violence. But it will send the message that this senseless violence is unacceptable and un-American," Shepard testified.
Shepard struggled to control her emotions as she remembered her son.
"I will never again experience Matt's laugh, his wonderful hugs, his stories," she said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who chairs the panel, expressed his sympathies to Shepard and praised her efforts. But Hatch was less sympathetic to the legislative proposal.
"Before we take the step of making every criminal offense motivated by hatred a federal offense, we ought to equip states and localities with the resources necessary so they can undertake these criminal investigations and prosecutions on their own," Hatch said.
The measure would allow federal involvement in a wide range of violent crimes committed because of bias based on the race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability of the victim.
The other panel members present, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) are co-sponsors of the measure.
"I'm convinced if Congress acted today, and President Clinton signed our bill tomorrow, we'd have fewer hate crimes in all the days that follow," Kennedy said.
Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder testified in support of the bill, saying the Justice Department needed the authorization to take over a hate crime case where the local officials "are unable or unwilling to do so."
Holder attempted to assure Hatch the legislation would be used sparingly by federal authorities, and would not federalize rape cases, even though Hatch asserted they are gender-specific.
"Not all rapes, assaults on women would be brought into federal court," Holder testified. Holder said the Justice Department would provide a needed "backdrop" to allow it to handle cases only where Justice deemed necessary.
However, the chief prosecutor in the Shepard case testified against the proposal, saying the only thing local prosecutors need from the federal government is funding to deal with the requirements of trying such cases.
"Save our taxpayer dollars. Keep your teams of federal bodies," said Kenneth Brown, chief prosecuting attorney in Laramie, Wyoming.
"Instead provide small prosecuting offices like ours with financial assistance," he said.
Brown said jury sequestration, huge witness costs and 24-hour security easily exceeded his annual budget tenfold.
His office charged two men with Shepard's murder. One defendant pleaded guilty. The second awaits trial on first-degree murder charges.
Brown complained that President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service had all called to say help would be made available to try the men accused of Shepard's murder, but no financial aid was forthcoming.
"The only thing we received was some advice. The advice Janet Reno's office offered us was to wear blue shirts as they appeared better on television cameras," Brown testified.
"We then asked the federal government when the money would be there, and we were told that someone who had lacked authority had made those representations," Brown said.
Another of the bill's opponents, Robert Knight of the conservative Family Research Council, said the law would benefit only groups deemed politically correct.
"It sets up special classes of victims who are afforded a higher level of government protection than others victimized by similar crimes," Knight said. "In Littleton, Colorado, some victims were shot only because they were athletes. They wouldn't be covered here."
But Westchester County, New York, District Attorney Jeanine Ferris Pirro expressed an opposite view. Pirro, a Republican, urged passage of the measure to "send a message" against intolerance.
"There are those who argue that hate crimes legislation provides special rights for select crime victims. I can assure those naysayers that once a crime of violence takes place, no criminal legislation can restore to victims what they have lost," she said.
CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
Suspect pleads guilty in beating death of gay college student
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act
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