Death Penalty for Hate Crimes??

July 21, 2009

Yesterday the Senate passed four amendments to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, including a provision that would allow the death penalty to apply to hate crimes.  This amendment, added by Senator Jeff Sessions, R, AL (a vocal opponent of the Act itself), adds nothing to the justice the bill seeks for victims of gender and sexuality-based hate crimes. 

The goal of the Matthew Shepard Act (which is itself attached to the 2010 Defense Department authorization bill) is to allow the investigation and prosecution of some hate crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identification, or disability. The person for whom it is named was a 21-year old college student from Colorado who was tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 by two other young men. As an openly gay young man, Matthew Shepard was the victim of much discrimination and violence. During the trial for his murder, witnesses stated that he was victimized that night by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson because of his sexuality.

After McKinney’s conviction the jury began deliberating the death penalty, but Matthew’s parents were able to broker a last-minute deal so that McKinney was sentenced to life in prison instead. Matthew Shepard’s dad was quoted as saying to him:

“I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.”

This profoundly difficult and heart-wrenching decision to show mercy after such a terrible crime may mean nothing to Senator Sessions, but his amendment can still be removed when a House-Senate conference committee meets to reconcile the differences between the two bills, or when the entire House and Senate vote on the bill after that.