This year marks the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The Shepard-Byrd Act makes it a crime to physically attack someone based on the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The law protects members of minority and majority populations.
The act is named for two victims of hate crimes. Matthew Shepard was a gay student in Wyoming who was beaten to death because of his sexual orientation. James Byrd, Jr. was an African-American man who was killed in Texas after he was tied to a truck by two white men, who then dragged and decapitated him.
Since the Shepard-Byrd Act was enacted in 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice has vigorously enforced the statute, convicting 47 defendants nationally. Here in the Eastern District of Michigan, our prosecutors convicted a Detroit man of physically assaulting a victim at a Detroit gas station based on the victim’s sexual orientation. The victim suffered serious injuries, including a fractured eye socket.
Our prosecutors have also conducted training of federal, state and local law enforcement officers to ensure that they understand the elements of the statute so that they may conduct effective investigations.
I am sometimes asked why we need hate crimes laws. After all, aren’t all crimes hate crimes? Hate crimes are different from traditional crimes because the motive is different in hate crimes. Victims of traditional crimes are targeted for greed, revenge, opportunity or a host of other motives. Victims of hate crimes, on the other hand, are targeted because of their membership in a particular group, based on factors such as race, national origin, sexual orientation or disability. When a defendant attacks a victim based on such factors, the entire group feels victimized. Criminal conduct that seeks to victimize an entire community has no place in a democratic society.
In Michigan, where we have lost population in recent decades, we should seek to be a welcoming beacon to all groups. One way to send that message is to enforce our hate crimes laws so that all individuals feel welcome. We will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement to do all we can to prosecute hate crimes.
Barbara L. McQuade
United States Attorney
Eastern District of Michigan