Attack after same-sex marriage shines light on Michigan hate crime law

Story highlights

Michigan woman is attacked days after her same-sex marriage was seen on local TV

Michigan is one of 19 states that do not specifically protect LGBT community in hate crime statute

2009 federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act has not been extended to individual states

Former state legislator: "There are still glaring gaps in the laws that generally protect people"

CNN  — 

Nine days after her same-sex wedding, a 28-year-old Michigan woman was set upon on her way home from work, knocked unconscious by three men who kicked and punched her while shouting anti-gay epithets.

“Hey b—-, aren’t you that f—– from the news?” one of the men asked, according to police.

The assailants in Monday’s assault recognized her from local TV news coverage of her wedding, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. She and her partner were among the many gay and lesbian couples to recently make their unions official after a federal court struck down a Michigan amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman.

The victim, who doesn’t want to be identified, got herself to a hospital with significant bruising and swelling to the right side of her face as well as her torso and arm, Jackson said. Police in Washtenaw County – about 30 miles west of Detroit – were looking for the attackers.

In many states, hate crime charges could be brought in such cases, but Michigan is one of 19 states that do not include sexual orientation in their hate crime laws, according to Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.

Michigan’s hate crime law, known as the ethnic intimidation statute, protects people against crimes based on their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.”

But Michigan prosecutors acknowledge the law is inadequate, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates agree.

“People on the other side of this issue tend to think of it as the LGBT community looking for a special right,” said Yvonne Siferd, director of victim services for Equality Michigan, a statewide LGBT anti-violence and advocacy organization. “It’s not a special right to walk down the street holding the hand of people you love and not be attacked.”

For more than two decades, advocacy groups have been pushing for states to adopt hate crime laws to include the LGBT community or expand existing laws to do so, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The laws would impose stricter sentences, increase accountability on assailants and broaden crimes to include hate crimes against property.

The District of Columbia was the first jurisdiction to include sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime laws in 1989, according to Warbelow. In 2001 and 2002, she said, advocates pushed for states to specifically protect the LGBT community in hate crime laws. The clamor was a direct response to the case of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager who died after being tied to a fence in Wyoming and beaten in 1998.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, making hate crimes a federal offense in an attempt to protect members of the nation’s LGBT community and other groups from bias-motivated violence.

Advocates hailed the federal law’s passage as a step in the right direction, but legislators appear to have abandoned efforts to expand it on a state level.

“Legislators have it stuck in their head that because it’s a federal law, they don’t have to pass it on a state level,” Warbelow told CNN. “But there is a limited number of money the feds have to investigate hate crimes. It is much more ideal for states to have mechanisms to take on hate crime themselves.”

The first effort at expanding Michigan’s ethnic intimidation statute dates back to 1997, according to Ari Adler, press secretary for Michigan state house speaker Jase Bolger.

But opponents have said that expanding the statute would make gays and lesbians a special class of citizens and signal that crimes against the LGBT community are more serious than those committed against heterosexuals, according to the state legislature’s Journal of the House.

Chris Kolb, Michigan’s first openly gay state legislator, was the primary sponsor of the bill expansion in 2001. He said the opposition reflected a basic lack of education about gay rights, the philosophy that you shouldn’t add an additional penalty to a crime, and the fact that some people did not want to give special recognition to the LGBT community.

“There are still glaring gaps in the laws that generally protect people,” said Kolb, a former state representative who now heads an organization called the Michigan Environmental Council.

“Hate crimes, while they may be committed against an individual person, are aimed at the entire group of people they represent – that’s why they are different than just a crime,” he said. “They are sending a message to a group of people.”

Michigan police officers are required to record data and report information for reported crimes, including whether sexual orientation was a factor, according to Warbelow. But prosecutors can’t bring charges beyond the actual assault.

“The federal government … wanted to see how much of a problem hate crimes were,” Warbelow said. “The difference was the government took the data and said it was a problem and changed the law. Michigan has not.”

Washtenaw County police say they don’t have any reason to believe the 28-year-old Michigan woman attacked on her way home is not credible. Police have no leads at this time.

She told police she believes the prior publicity contributed to the attack.

The police investigation continues, and whatever evidence is gathered will be turned over to prosecutors.

Steven Hiller, chief assistant prosecutor for Washtenaw County, said prosecutors could contact U.S. attorneys if they determine that federal law is applicable. “If the motivation for the crime was a person’s sexual orientation, it just doesn’t fall within the ethnic intimidation statute,” he said.

Hiller added, “It is not an unheard-of situation for our office to contact the U.S. attorney in appropriate circumstances to look at a particular case if federal law addresses a situation better than state law does.”

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