Justice News

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband Delivers Remarks at Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act
Washington, DC
United States
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A peaceful Bible study at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; worshippers at Shabbat morning services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; an Islamic community in Victoria, Texas.  All interrupted by violence. 

And those are only a few of the countless modern headlines describing horrific shootings and arsons, death and destruction.  It is easy to think of hate crimes as a new problem. But sadly, hate is older than America itself.

Our values as a nation are rooted in our founding history and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which boldly proclaims -- as a self-evident truth-- that all of us are created equal.  Yet, for many, those values did not really exist.

As we approach Thanksgiving, we are reminded that our country was founded by Pilgrims and Puritans who left England because the English monarch denied them religious and other forms of freedom, harassed them, and sometimes tortured them for their religious beliefs. 

And yet, the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to these shores did not always respect the religious freedom of others.  For example, in Boston in 1660, a woman named Mary Dyer was an English Puritan who became a Quaker.  By doing so, she violated a law that banned Quakers from the Massachusetts colony.  She suffered the ultimate penalty when she and others who shared her faith were executed on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. 

And another of America’s founding settlements, Jamestown, was responsible for beginning the importation of African slaves.  The violent legacy of that decision split our country, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, four score and seven years after its founding, and cascades down through the centuries, touching us today.

After the civil war, the Congress enacted and the States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not end race-related violence. 

Indeed, in May 1865, when ratification was nearly certain, former slave and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass warned that even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, “Any wretch may enter the house of a black man, and commit any violence he pleases; if he happens to do it only in the presence of black persons, he goes unwhipt of justice.”

Mr. Douglass’ warning proved prophetic.  Later in 1865, in the very month that slavery was abolished, confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee formed a club that soon evolved into the most violent terrorist organization the country had ever seen.  The Ku Klux Klan murdered thousands and intimidated tens of thousands of Americans, both in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and in its second incarnation in the Twentieth Century.  The Klan targeted Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and anyone who supported them. 

Lynchings by the Klan and by similar organizations occurred throughout the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, often unabated by state police or prosecutors. 

The federal government then had no tools to address the problem of bias-motivated violence.  Attempts by the federal government to prosecute such violent acts of bias were unsuccessful because existing statutes did not adequately cover nongovernment actors, and the courts read into such statutes a lack of federal authority to prosecute bias crimes under the 13th and 14th Amendments.

During the 1960s, Americans witnessed several racially-motivated murders, including the shooting death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; the murderous bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and corresponding deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all age 14, and Carol Denise McNair, age 11; the executions of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.

As a result of all this violence, and the dedicated work of many civil rights activists, public officials, and other Americans, the Congress enacted and, one week after the assassination of Dr. King, on April 11, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed America’s first hate crime laws.  One statute made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin and because the person is participating in a federally protected activity, such as public education, employment, jury service, travel, or the enjoyment of public accommodations, or helping another person to do so.  A second statute made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to interfere with housing rights because of the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; in 1988, Congress added protections for familial status and disability.

These laws were effective tools for the federal government, but did not end violence in America or empower the federal government to seek justice for all its incarnations.

These laws did not protect houses of worship, and in 1996, after Black churches burned across the South, Congress enacted the Church Arson Prevention Act. That law authorizes punishment for the defacement, damage and destruction of religious real property at any house of worship, be it a church, mosque, synagogue, or any other sacred building.  The Congress and the president amended the law last year to increase its effectiveness.

Yet, despite these laws, there remained a gap in federal law.  The 1968 laws required proof of both an act of violence and also proof that the defendant intended to interfere with a specified list of protected rights -- for example, the right to own or occupy a dwelling. 

This meant that a defendant might be acquitted if he could successfuly argue that although he had assaulted his neighbor because of the color of his skin, the assault had nothing to do with the neighbor’s house; in other words, that he also would have assaulted his neighbor if he saw him at work, at prayer, or on the street.

Moreover, until 2009, only one federal hate crime law covered crimes against disabled individuals and none allowed prosecution of defendants who targeted the LGBT community.  Congress eventually decided that these individuals needed protection.   

In 1998, Matthew Shepard— a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming --was robbed, tortured, tied to a fence along a country road and left to die by two men who offered him a ride home from a local bar.  The investigation into Matthew Shepard’s death found strong evidence that his attackers targeted him because he was gay.

That same year, James Byrd, Jr.—a 49-year-old African-American man who lived in Jasper, Texas—accepted a ride home from three men. They drove him to the remote edge of town where they beat him severely, tied him by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck, and dragged him to his death.  In the case of James Byrd, Jr., the three men responsible for his killing were well-known white supremacists.

But while the men responsible for brutally killing Matthew and James were later convicted of murder, none of them was prosecuted for committing a hate crime. At the time Matthew and James were murdered, neither Wyoming nor Texas had a hate crimes law, and existing federal hate crimes protections did not include violent acts based on the victim’s sexual orientation and only covered racial violence against those engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or attending school.

Ten years ago this month, Congress enacted and President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This landmark legislation greatly expanded the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes. The law enables the Justice Department to prosecute crimes motivated by race, color, religion and national origin without having to show that the defendant was engaged in a federally protected activity. The Shepard-Byrd Act also empowers the department to prosecute crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability as hate crimes.

When Congress enacted the Shepard-Byrd Act, it found: “For generations, the institutions of slavery and involuntary servitude were defined by the race, color, and ancestry of those held in bondage. Slavery and involuntary servitude were enforced, both prior to and after the adoption of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, through widespread public and private violence directed at persons because of their race, color, or ancestry, or perceived race, color, or ancestry. Accordingly, eliminating racially motivated violence is an important means of eliminating, to the extent possible, the badges, incidents, and relics of slavery and involuntary servitude.”

Congress determined that the incidence of violence motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim posed a serious national problem and that such violence disrupts the tranquility and safety of communities and is deeply divisive. 

Congress found that “existing Federal law is inadequate to address this problem,” and that “[a] prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim and the family and friends of the victim, but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected.”

Hate crimes are message crimes. These crimes both injure the victims and have special emotional and psychological impact on individuals and communities who share the trait targeted by the crime.  As Congress found, such crimes may intimidate other members of the victim’s community, leaving them feeling terrorized, isolated, and vulnerable.

Federal hate crime charges thus not only fill the gap when state prosecutions fail to address serious criminal intent, they also carry significant symbolic value. Such charges recognize that the crime committed was an attack against both a specific victim and an attack against an entire community that shares the victim’s protected trait. Federal hate crimes charges also send a message to members of targeted groups that they are valued members of society, and that their protection matters.

Today, we celebrate Congress’s historic decision, and honor those whose years of advocacy and activism made passage of the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act possible. 

In a speech last Friday, Attorney General William Barr reminded us of the danger of tyranny if our government becomes "too controlling." He also explained that “unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”

Hate crimes threaten the health of our community life, and a decade after passage of the Shepard-Byrd Act, and more than twenty years after the brutal murders of the men for whom it was named, prosecuting hate crimes remains a top priority for the Department of Justice. Since its passage ten years ago, the Department has used the Shepard-Byrd Act to charge more than 100 defendants in approximately 50 hate crime cases, and has secured federal convictions against more than 80 of those defendants, with some cases still pending.   These prosecutions are a key part of the Department’s overall hate crimes prosecution program, which in the last 10 years has charged more than 330 defendants in more than 210 hate crimes cases.

Since January 2017 alone, the Department of Justice has charged more than 70 defendants for committing crimes motivated by hate.  For example:

In 2017, the Department of Justice brought charges for the murder of Mercedes Williamson, who was targeted because of gender identity.  The defendant pleaded guilty in federal court in Mississippi and received a sentence of 49 years.

In another case, the Department sent a federal criminal civil rights prosecutor to work with Iowa state prosecutors to try two men for the murder of Kedarie Johnson, a high school student attacked because of gender identity.  That case resulted in convictions and life sentences of both defendants in two separate trials.

In August 2018, a defendant was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to federal hate crimes and firearm charges for shooting three men at a bar in Olathe, Kansas.  The defendant shot and killed an Indian engineer named Srinivas Kuchibhotla and attempted to kill an Indian co-worker and a third man who came to their aid.  The crime was motivated by race, color, and national origin bias.

This past year, the Department moved swiftly to seek an indictment after a deadly attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A superseding indictment charged Robert Bowers with 63 counts, including federal hate crime charges.   The attack took the lives of 11 people at worship, and injured seven others. Four police officers were among the wounded. 

This past Spring, after a shooter killed one, and wounded three others, at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue, and set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, both in Southern California, the Department charged John Earnest in a 113 count indictment that included numerous hate crimes charges.

This summer, James Alex Fields, Jr. was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to numerous hate crimes, including the hate crime murder of Heather Heyer and the attempted murder of 28 others. Fields drove his car into a racially and ethnically diverse crowd of individuals engaged in a peaceful demonstration in Charlottesville in August 2017.

Importantly, the Department’s commitment to combat hate crimes extends beyond prosecutions.  In 2017, the Department created a Hate Crimes Subcommittee as part of its Task Force on Violent Crime Reduction, which has since been transformed into a freestanding, Department-wide Hate Crimes Enforcement and Prevention Initiative.

Led by the Civil Rights Division, the new Initiative coordinates the Department’s efforts to eradicate hate crimes, and facilitates outreach to law enforcement agencies and the public.

For example, this summer, the Department hosted a day-long Summit on Combatting Anti-Semitism featuring remarks from federal leaders from across government. Panel presentations focused upon hate crimes prosecution, anti-Semitism on campus, and how to combat anti-Semitism while respecting the First Amendment, among other issues. 

In August 2018, the Department’s Hate Crimes Initiative convened the first-ever seminar on Investigating and Prosecuting Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism, bringing together 70 civil rights and domestic terrorism prosecutors and agents to discuss how to collaborate better when investigating and prosecuting hate crimes that also constitute acts of domestic terrorism.

And, a year ago this month, in October 2018, the Department’s Hate Crimes Initiative convened a law enforcement roundtable on hate crimes. The day and a half–long event, highlighted in a forthcoming report, brought law enforcement and other leaders from around the country together with DOJ officials to explore successful practices and challenges in identifying, reporting, and tracking hate crimes.

At the event, the Department announced the launch of a comprehensive new hate crimes website designed to provide a centralized portal for the Department’s hate crimes resources for law enforcement, media, researchers, victims, advocacy groups, and other related organizations and individuals.  The website, https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes, has attracted over 200,000 visitors since the launch. 

Also announced last year was the extension of significant technical assistance to help state, local, and tribal law enforcement with hate crimes prosecution and prevention through the Collaborative Reform Technical Assistance Center – a partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and nine leading law enforcement leadership and labor organizations. 

Throughout the Roundtable, as discussed in a forthcoming report capturing input from the event, representatives from diverse law enforcement agencies and national policing organizations engaged in collaborative brainstorming and action planning with federal government leaders.

At the Roundtable, law enforcement told us that the single most important tool that the federal government could provide to improve investigation and reporting of hate crimes was hate crimes training at all levels of law enforcement.

Today, I am proud to announce that the Department is supporting development of a comprehensive hate crimes training curriculum for law enforcement.  The Department’s COPS Office is working with the Collaborative Reform Initiative to develop a training opportunity designed to support law enforcement response, investigation and reporting of hate crimes consistent with the Administration’s guidance. The course when developed and made available will be focused on increasing the capacity and competency to investigate and accurately report hate crimes; and pursuing the best option for prosecution of perpetrators.

Feedback from the Law Enforcement Roundtable on Improving the Identification and Reporting of Hate Crimes has obviously been an important catalyst for change.  Law enforcement Roundtable participants told us that positive relationships between law enforcement and the community encourage the reporting of hate crimes, and that they need assistance in building and sustaining strong community-police relationships. In response, we developed an outreach and engagement program entitled “United Against Hate: Cultivating Community Partnerships.”  The 2-phase program aims to address the underreporting of hate crimes by community members to law enforcement. In the second phase of the program, U.S. Attorney's Offices will have the opportunnity to facilitate trainings across the country, convening a wide array of community groups, such as advocacy organizations educators, and local leaders (including religious leaders) to discuss the impact of hate crimes and explore strategies to build trust with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement. The ultimate goal of the program is to further hate crimes prevention efforts, and improve the accuracy of hate crime statistics, as more people become willing to report hate crimes to law enforcement. 

This is important also because of the number of hate crimes that constitute domestic terrorism. Individuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years. Violent extremists are increasingly using social media for the distribution of propaganda, recruitment, target selection, and incitement to violence. Strong law enforcement and community bonds are critical to identifying and stemming this kind of extremism.

As stated, hate crimes are message crimes. Our recognition of the tenth anniversary of the Shepard-Byrd Act today also sends a message; namely, that the Department of Justice will not tolerate violence that targets individuals based on actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.  

The passage of the Shepard-Byrd Act was the culmination of a struggle that lasted more than a decade. The cause endured only because of the families of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, along with other interested persons and organizations who toiled for years, many of whom are with us here today.

The continued importance and impact of the Shepard-Byrd Act is possible only through the incredible efforts of these people, and those in the law enforcement community, both those on the front lines and at the Department of Justice prosecution teams, here in Washington and in U.S. Attorneys offices across the country.

It is our privilege today to honor those who work day and night to ensure that the promise of the Shepard-Byrd Act – protecting all communities against the scourge of hate crime – is fulfilled.  Let us move forward with a renewed commitment to the principle that every American should enjoy equal protection of the laws, and should be free to live and worship in safety.  I thank you for your service to your communities and to your country.

Updated October 17, 2019