Matthew Shepard was a soft-spoken, 21-year-old freshman at the University of Wyoming who aspired to a career in diplomacy and human rights.
After being lured outside a popular bar in the 27,000-person town of Laramie, Wyo., he was beaten with the butt of a .357 Magnum. He suffered a dozen cuts around the head, face and neck. A massive blow to the back of his head was so devastating that doctors were unable to treat it. After being tied to a fence post for 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures, he was found by passing bicyclists who, at first, mistook him for a scarecrow.
For five days, Shepard lay in a hospital bed treading the line between life and death. He died Oct. 12 as a result of his wounds. In the days following his death, he has become a martyr for the cause of tolerance and a symbol of anti-gay violence.
In the aftermath of Shepard’s death, there has been a push for more hate crime laws to combat these types of attacks. Many hope Shepard’s death will push Congress and state legislatures to pass anti-hate crime legislation or broaden existing laws.
But new laws will not stop hate.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws increasing the penalties for crimes committed because of a person’s race, religion, color, national origin and sexual orientation. Another 19 states do not include sexual orientation in their hate crime laws. Ten states, including Wyoming, have no hate crime laws.
The Hate Crimes Protection Act sits before Congress. The bill would make crimes based on sex, disability and sexual orientation a breach of federal law.
Whenever a case of violence is highly publicized, the knee-jerk reaction always is to pass new laws to punish future occurrences of the same crime. It is understandable that people don’t want the repetition of an act that left a young man dead.
In many states, hate-crime laws cover only low-level offenses such as harassment and assault. Other states double or triple the maximum prison sentences if the defendant was motivated by anti-Semitism, racism and sometimes homophobia and misogyny.
But if a law of this type had been in effect in Wyoming, what would it have done to save Shepard’s life? Wyoming already has laws against murder, kidnapping, assault and robbery – all crimes Shepard’s alleged attackers committed. A hate crime law would have done nothing to prevent the attack.
Shepard’s two alleged 21-year-old attackers – Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney – both could face a death sentence. If that was not enough of a deterrent to stop them from committing their savage assault on Shepard, no other laws would have prevented the attack.
Last summer in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged several miles to his death. The suspects were quickly apprehended and charged with the horrible crime. While Texas also regularly uses the death penalty, it did not stop these men from committing a modern-day lynching of a black man. Would hate crime laws have made any difference?
A federal hate crime law is just an easy way for politicians to come out against hatred and prejudice. It does not deal with what causes people to act in such incredibly violent ways, nor will it do anything that current laws don’t already address.
Hate crime laws also could lead to double jeopardy for defendants. If someone is found not guilty in a first trial and special interests view that decision as incorrect, a second trial based on hate crimes or civil rights violations could try the same defendant for the same crime. Is that what we want?
Authorities in Wyoming must do everything possible to make sure justice is served in the Shepard case. But we should resist the urge to call for more laws when the existing laws already serve their purpose. If current laws cannot prevent some people from committing crimes, nothing in any hate crime law will be a solution.
I don’t mean to say that Shepard’s attackers shouldn’t face a harsh punishment. If I had my way, the two defendants would be hung from the gallows on a Saturday afternoon before an applauding crowd. If not that, then the rest of their lives should be spent in a small, dingy prison cell.
Matthew Shepard’s death is a tragedy. It is sad because a person who might have made a difference in the world was suddenly and violently killed. It is sad because it shows the depravity for which humans can be responsible.
But no matter how sad and tragic Shepard’s death, passing new laws will do nothing to stop other similar crimes. While it might make us feel good because we finally “did something,” those good feelings will quickly disappear as soon as the next tragedy makes the headlines.