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Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Massachusetts

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, October 29, 2014

U.S. Attorney's Office And Anti-Defamation League Commemorate 5th Anniversary Of The Federal Hate Crimes Act

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BOSTON – The United States Attorney's Office and the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) New England Division hosted an event yesterday commemorating the 5th anniversary of the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

On Oct. 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed this landmark legislation which 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 of Justice to prosecute assaults committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability as hate crimes. The law also marked the first time that the words, "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender" appeared in the United States Code.

“For over a decade, a coalition of civil rights, religious and law enforcement leaders from across the nation persistently advocated for a law to strengthen the protections against crimes based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity -- a law, which in a perfect union, would not be necessary,” said United State Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

The law, which was a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, was also fiercely advocated by the families of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. In 1998, Matthew Shepard— a 21-year-old gay college 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. That same year, James Byrd Jr.—a 49-year-old African-American man living in Jasper, Texas—accepted a ride home from three men who 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.

While the men responsible for the Shepard and Byrd killings were later convicted of murder, none of them were prosecuted for committing a hate crime. At the time these murders were committed, 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.

During his remarks yesterday, Robert Trestan, Regional Director of ADL’s New England Division, said, “In the United States bigotry cannot be outlawed, but hate crime laws demonstrate an important commitment to confront and deter criminal activity motivated by prejudice. Hate crimes continue to impact communities at a rate of almost one every hour. Today’s anniversary is an opportunity for us to increase our efforts at preventing these crimes from happening in the first place by focusing on training and outreach.”

The event also featured Mary L. Bonauto, Civil Rights Project Director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Attorney Bonauto has litigated groundbreaking cases expanding the rights of same-sex couples. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including most recently the 2014 MacArthur Fellowship.

Among other reflections, Ms. Bonauto shared her view on the impact of this law: “Laws affect attitudes. This law says that criminal acts committed with bias will be punished more severely because they strike beyond the individual and his or her family to a wider community.”

The Macedonia and First Church of God in Christ in Springfield is one of those communities that had been affected by bias and prejudice. On Nov. 5, 2008, hours after President Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first black president, Thomas Gleason, Michael Jacques and Benjamin Haskell set fire to the predominantly black church.

Bishop Bryant Robinson, Jr., Pastor of the Macedonia and First Church of God in Christ also made remarks at the event. He expressed his gratitude for those who helped to bring those responsible to justice which provided “a degree of healing” to his congregation. In his message, he stated that, “we have much that we can celebrate, but we have so many more miles to journey.”

Individuals are encouraged to report incidents of hate to their local
police department, the FBI or an advocacy group.

More about the Shepard-Byrd Act can be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/crm/matthewshepard.php

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Updated December 15, 2014