Death in Wyoming – Staff editorial

Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was lured from a popular local tavern Oct. 6, beaten with the butt of a .357 magnum handgun, strung up on a fence and left for dead. Shepard died early Monday morning after lying in a coma for five days. He was killed by two college-aged men after reportedly flirting with one of them at the tavern. It is sad irony that in Wyoming – nicknamed the Equality State for its lead in granting women the right to vote and be elected to office – that a man was beaten savagely for apparently nothing more than being gay.

Wyoming officials say robbery appears to have been the primary motive behind the beating. But gay rights activists and many others argue that robbery was not the sole motive – Shepard’s sexual preference may have led to the attack. Hate crimes such as this one and the gruesome murder in Jasper, Texas, of a black man tied by the neck to the bumper of a pickup truck show the need for stronger hate crime legislation.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act is sitting in the U.S. Congress. It would amend the current federal law to include real or perceived sexual orientation, gender and disability as categories for hate crime victims. Current law allows investigation and prosecution on the basis of race, religion and national origin.

Only 21 states and the District of Columbia include sexual orientation-based crimes in their hate crimes statutes. The federal government must address those limited cases in which local authorities are either unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute prejudice-based crimes.

Hate crimes committed against gays, lesbians and bisexuals comprise the third-highest category of all hate crimes reported to the FBI, currently representing 12 percent of all hate crimes reported. Until we as a nation reach the day when people will not attack one another based solely on prejudice, laws such as the Hate Crime Prevention Act are necessary. How many more Matthew Shepards have to die before federal legislators realize tougher hate crime laws must be enacted?

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