Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following statement today on the floor of the U.S. Senate in favor of the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, which seeks to strengthen the ability of federal and local law enforcement officials to prosecute hate crimes.
Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming when he was savagely beaten on the evening of October 6, 1998, because he was gay. Two men who had offered him a ride home robbed and pistol whipped him, beat him so severely they smashed his skull, tied him to a fence with a rope, and left him to die. He died of severe head injuries less than a week later.
“What happened to Matthew was a tragedy for this young man, for his family, for other gay men and women who were terrorized by this horrific crime, and for our nation. The men who murdered Matthew Shepard were not charged with committing a hate crime, because crimes of violence committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes under Wyoming or federal law. This is still the case today.
“The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act would strengthen the ability of federal, state, and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. This amendment would remove the current limitation on federal jurisdiction that allows federal involvement only in cases in which the assailant intended to prevent a victim from engaged in a ‘federally protected activity,’ such as voting. This amendment would expand the groups protected under current law to include all hate crimes – including those based on disability, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. And this amendment would provide the Department of Justice the authority to assist state and local jurisdictions in prosecuting violent hate crimes, or to take the lead in such prosecutions where local authorities are unwilling or unable to act.
“Unfortunately, some of these crimes of hate-motivated violence have been directed at our men and women in uniform. In 1992, Allen Schindler, a sailor in the Navy, was stomped to death by a fellow serviceman because of his sexual orientation. Seven years later, Pfc. Barry Winchell, an infantry soldier in the Army, was beaten to death with a baseball bat because his attackers believed he was gay. In December 1995, two paratroopers who were members of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads at Fort Bragg shot an African-American couple in a random, racially-motivated double murder that led to a major investigation of extremism in the military. The killers were sentenced to life in prison, and 19 other members of their division were dishonorably discharged for neo-Nazi gang activities.
“According to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report, the problem may get worse, as members of hate groups have been entering our military, which is increasingly desperate for new recruits. We have to make it clear that crimes of hate in our military will not be tolerated, and this amendment does just that: it strengthens the Defense Authorization bill by sending a clear message that such crimes will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
“As we hold ourselves up as a model for the ideals of equality, tolerance, and mutual understanding abroad, we have a special responsibility to combat hate-motivated violence at home. Our troops are on the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere fighting against evil and hate. We owe it to them to uphold those same principles here at home.
“The Matthew Shepard Act was introduced this spring at a ceremony attended by Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis. I hope that today we will honor the memory of this young man by passing this important legislation which is named after him.
“We all remember the brutal killing of James Byrd some years ago in Texas. We need only look to the recent events in Jena, Louisiana, to see that for all our progress, racial tensions continue across our country today. This legislation honors the commitment to justice that is woven deep within the fabric of our nation. I urge all my colleagues to join me in voting to pass it.”