Monday, October 26, 2009
Shepard/Byrd Act Passes Through Congress...FINALLY
Quietly on Thursday, the Senate passed the long-awaited Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It took a little slight of hand in the House, where the bill began, to do it as the leadership put the bill as a rider on the back of a defense appropriations bill, but it worked! The act extends protection of the 1969 United States hate crime law to, as Wikipedia puts it, include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
This new and improved act removed the prerequisites that the victim be going to school or voting. It also gives the federal government the ability to take up and investigate potential hate crimes that local communities decide to pass on. It provides federal funding for state and local governments to investigate hate crimes, and, importantly, it requires the FBI for the first time to track and keep data on hate crimes perpetrated against transgender individuals.
It's a landmark piece of legislation that so many have fought for, and it also stands to memorialize the two individuals that are in the name of the act, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr.
In case you've forgotten, Shepard died on October 12, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. The prosecution in the case said that the murderers pretended to be gay in order to befriend Shepard lure him out of the bar and rob him. The graphic details of the crime are enough to make you sick. Shepard was beaten, tortured, and tied to a fence post where he suffered for 18 hours before being found. He was rushed to the hospital, but his skull was crushed. He suffered severe brain damage, and the damage was too great. After lingering for another five days, he died. Matthew Shepard was just 21.
James Byrd, Jr. was killed on June 7, 1998 in Jasper, Texas. The 49-year-old Byrd, an African-American, was murdered after he accepted a ride from three caucasian men: Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John Russell King. Again, the crime is awful. Byrd wanted to go home, but the three young men...two in their early 20's and one in his early 30's...took Byrd behind a local convenience store. There, they beat him, stripped him naked, and chained him by his ankles to the back of their pickup truck. He was dragged for three miles. In the process, his right arm was severed, and he was decapitated. What was left of Byrd's body was dumped in the town's black cemetery. Brewer and King were known white supremacists.
In both cases, the perpetrators of the crimes were prosecuted and theoretically put away forever in each case. Brewer and King were sentenced to death. Berry, McKinney, and Anderson were all sentenced to varying degrees of life in prison. That shouldn't take out the the need for this new legislation.
So, as activists celebrate the passage of the Shepard/Byrd Act by Congress and wait for President Obama to sign the legislation, let us remember the two men whose names appear on the bill.
James Byrd, Jr., 1949-1998 and Matthew Shepard, 1976-1998
The vote totals: House 281-146 (Indiana: Yes: Carson, Donnelly, Ellsworth, Hill, Visclosky; No: Burton, Buyer, Pence, Souder) Senate 68-29 (Yes: Bayh and Lugar)
In all, five Senate Republicans, including Senator Richard Lugar voted for the bill. 131 of the 146 House Republicans including all of the R delegation in Indiana voted against the bill.