Momentum for passing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) continues to expand, with an endorsement today from President Bill Clinton at a White House press conference. Clinton joins Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy Shepard, in leading the charge to pass legislation that would extend current federal hate crimes protection to cover gender, sexual orientation and dis-ability. According to HRC, new statistics released today by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs showing increased savagery in anti-gay attacks, as well yesterday's sentencing of Russell A. Henderson, one of two men accused of killing Matthew Shepard, punctuates the need for state and federal hate crimes laws.
"The President has always understood the importance of sending the message that a hate crime committed against one American is a crime against all Americans and is an assault on our society's core values," said HRC Political Director Winnie Stachelberg. "We hope Congress and lawmakers in all 50 states can match President Clinton's and Judy Shepard's will, determination and commitment to ending hate motivated violence."
In announcing his support for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Clinton put hate crimes against gay people in the context of ethnic and religious conflicts in Kosovo, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Clinton called on our nation to be an example for the world in tolerance and diversity.
"Our diversity is a godsend for us, and the world of the 21st century," said Clinton at the press conference. "But it also has the potential for the old, haunting demons that are hard to root out of the human spirit. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would be important, substantively and symbolically, to send a message to our-selves and to the world that we are going into the 21st century determined to preach and to practice what is right."
Clinton offered several methods to reduce hate crimes in America. The President said he will ask the Justice and Education Departments to provide hate crimes in-formation in their annual report cards on school safety. Clinton will ask the De-partment of Education to collect data on hate crimes on college campuses. Clinton also announced the formation of "a public-private partnership to help reach middle school students to discuss this whole issue with them and talk about tolerance -- why it is moral, as well as a practical imperative."
In a press conference last month, Mrs. Shepard announced her support for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, as well as passing state hate crimes laws. Mrs. Shepard said hate crimes laws could potentially deter violent acts by sending a clear message to would-be perpetrators that society unequivocally condemns hate motivated violence.
"No one will ever know if these laws would have saved...my son's life. But we can begin today by building a safer world for all Americans, including gay and les-bian Americans," said Mrs. Shepard at the press conference. "On behalf of my family, I call on the Congress of the United States to pass the hate Crimes Preven-tion Act without delay."
The need for hate crimes legislation was highlighted by a survey released today by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which documented 2,552 anti-gay incidents in 1998. The national survey includes reports from 16 coalition members in locations ranging from San Francisco to Cleveland to El Paso, Texas. The survey showed an alarming increase in the brutality of hate crimes, with chill-ing statistics that communicated the intensity of anti-gay sentiment behind attacks.
"What we found most disturbing was the attacks were more severe and much more intense," said Natalie Chin, a spokeswoman from the Community United Against Violence, which gathered statistics for the survey in San Francisco. "At-tackers really seem motivated to debase their victims and cause serious injury."
According to an article about the survey in the San Francisco Chronicle, the use of weapons grew at an unprecedented pace. Reports of guns used during assaults grew 71 percent; ropes and restraints, 133 percent; vehicles, 150 percent; and the use of blunt objects, clubs, bats in attacks grew by 47 percent.
The survey follows murder suspect Russell A. Henderson's guilty plea yesterday in Laramie, Wyo. to felony murder, as well as the robbery and kidnaping of Uni-versity of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Henderson's plea brought a swift conclusion to a nationally watched trial that may have ended with the death penalty if Henderson was found guilty. District Judge Jeffery A. Donnell sentenced Henderson to serve two consecutive life sentences.
According to the Associated Press, defense attorney Wyatt Skaggs said that Henderson simply watched while co-defendant Aaron J. McKinney killed Shepard with the butt of his gun. Skaggs also claimed that the slaying was not premeditated. McKinney will stand trial for first degree murder, aggravated robbery, and kid-naping in August. If convicted, he could receive the death penalty. Henderson's girlfriend pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact of the murder on Dec. 23 and is awaiting sentencing. In May, McKinney's girlfriend goes on trial on an accessory charge, according to the AP report.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) was introduced last month at a press conference on Capitol Hill. A hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on HCPA is scheduled for April 28.
Hate crimes based on sexual orientation were up 8 percent in 1997, according to the latest FBI statistics. Sexual orientation was the third highest category of hate crimes behind race and religion and represented 14 percent of all hate crimes re-ported. Currently, hate crimes monitoring and enforcement consists of a patchwork of laws that offer citizens varying levels of legal protection depending on where they live. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes laws that include sexual orientation. Twenty one states have laws that do not include sexual orientation. Eight states have no hate crimes laws at all.
The Human Rights Campaign is the nation's largest national lesbian and gay po-litical organization, with members throughout the country, effectively lobbies Con-gress, provides campaign support, and educates the public to ensure that lesbian and gay Americans can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community.