Hate Crimes, Matthew Shepard and What Happened Today

Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard

In 1999, a little more than a year after the killing of Matthew Shepard, his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, took an action “to begin the healing process” for the community and, in fact, the country after his death.  As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, Matthew’s “parents . . . interceded to save the life of his killer” in a deal made on the eve of killer Aaron McKinney’s trial “that [sent him] to prison for life while sparing him the death penalty.”

Today, however, the U.S. Senate took a swipe at that legacy by burdening, on a voice vote, the Matthew Shepard Act with a death penalty provision offered by a Senator opposed to the bill.  The bill was added last week as an amendment to the Defense Department reauthorization act.  The problems our nation faces in addressing criminal justice in this country, however, were on full display as Senators, both Republican and Democratic, failed to oppose the death penalty “poison pill” amendment for fear of being seen as “weak on crime.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, in a move that does not befit a U.S. Senator, put forth an amendment to the legislation — which he strongly opposes — to add the death penalty as a punishment for hate crimes under certain circumstances.  Michael Cole, with HRC, noted the amendment’s possibility, and HRC’s opposition to it, on Saturday at HRC’s blog.

This is, simply, an amendment brought in bad-faith in an attempt to break apart the coalition that is supporting this bill — particularly groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.  As LCCR and many other coalition organizations, including the leading LGBT organizations, noted in a letter sent earlier today to Senators:

The HCPA was first introduced in 1997, but no version of the bill has ever included the death penalty. Senate and House sponsors of the bill and the very broad coalition of supporters have always opposed adding the death penalty to this legislation. The House of Representatives approved its very similar version of this measure, HR 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, without the death penalty on April 29 by a vote of 249-175. An amendment to add the death penalty was defeated at the House Judiciary Committee markup.

Despite that, the measure passed by a voice vote today.

The response from the LGBT groups was swift — yet understated.  From HRC’s Joe Solmonese: “We urge Congress to eliminate these unwelcomed amendments and send the Matthew Shepard Act to the President’s desk quickly.”  From NCLR’s Kate Kendell: “This provision can and must be removed in conference committee.”  From the Task Force’s Rea Carey: “There is still time to strike the amendment from the Department of Defense authorization bill when it shifts to conference committee.”

It’s unfortunate that the political ramifications of voting against the death penalty — even when brought by those opposing the legislation to which they are attempting to add it — are still strong enough that senators are afraid to voice their opposition to it.  Instead, everyone hopes that it will just be quietly removed by the conference committee.

That’s all well and good, but today’s action was a sad affront to Matthew Shepard’s memory and his father’s words, shared a decade ago in a courtroom in Wyoming, as reported by the LATimes:

Dennis Shepard read a lengthy, emotional statement in court Thursday, calling his 21-year-old gay son his hero and citing his special gift for helping people. As he spoke haltingly, pausing to wipe tears, many in the courtroom openly wept, including members of the jury.

Addressing McKinney, Shepard said: “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.”

Whoever is on the conference committee for the reauthorization bill must do whatever is needed to remove the Sessions amendment and restore dignity to this bill named to honor Matthew Shepard’s memory.

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About the Author

Chris Geidner is the award-winning senior political & legal reporter at BuzzFeed and has written for Metro Weekly, The Atlantic Online, The American Prospect, Advocate.com, Salon and other publications, as well as at his blog, Law Dork. He has appeared regularly on television commenting on current affairs, including MSNBC, PBS, HLN & Current. Prior to moving to D.C. in 2009, he served as an attorney on the senior staff at the Ohio Attorney General's Office and had earlier worked for a leading Columbus law firm. An extended biography can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter.