President Obama Signs Hate Crimes Bill Into Law

President Obama Signs Hate Crimes
October 29, 2009. – Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The Act expands coverage of the 1969 federal hate crimes law to include victims targeted based on their sexual orientation, disability, and gender identity. The Act further grants federal officials greater authority to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, provides greater funding for state and local agencies to investigate hate crimes, and for the first time, allows hate crimes prosecution without requiring proof that the victim was attacked because he or she was engaged in a federally protected activity.

“The Shepard and Byrd Act is a much-needed step to deter the alarming rise in hate-motivated violence that is increasingly targeted at Latinos. This law will help to bring a measure of justice to victims and their families and deter or prevent the commission of these heinous crimes,” noted Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel.

Luis Ramirez
The bill was first introduced in 1999, a year after Mathew Shepard, a gay teenager from Wyoming, was beaten to death due to his sexual orientation, and James Byrd, Jr., a black man from Texas, was tied to a pick-up truck and dragged to death because of his race. The hate crimes bill languished in Congress for ten years, unable to gain enough support for its passage. However, a string of hate crimes committed against Latinos last year prompted renewed urgency of the need for its passage.

Among the Latino victims were 25-year old Luis Ramirez, who lost his life after he was murdered by a group of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania teenagers who yelled racial epithets as they brutally beat him in July, 2008. A few months later, in November, 2008, Marcelo Lucero died of seven stab wounds to the chest inflicted by a group of teenagers in Patchogue, New York, who had set out to attack Latinos. Only one month later, Jose Osvaldo Sucuzhañay was beaten into a coma in Brooklyn, New York by a group of men yelling anti-Latino and anti-gay epithets. He died from his wounds within five days of the attack.

Claudine Karasik and Senator Patrick Leahy
In response to these slayings, MALDEF spearheaded a nationwide campaign to bring public attention to the 40 percent rise in hate crimes against Latinos, urge greater involvement by the Department of Justice, and garner Congressional support for passage of the hate crimes bill. In June, 2009, 50,000 people from around the country joined MALDEF’s call by signing an anti-hate crimes petition which MALDEF delivered to the Department of Justice. MALDEF was also a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s and the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights’ hate crime task force and worked closely with other leading national organizations to vigorously advocate for the strengthening of federal anti-hate crimes law.

“Hate crimes not only tragically impact their victims; they also render all members of the targeted groups more vulnerable to discrimination and attacks,” said Claudine Karasik, MALDEF Legislative Staff Attorney. “This new law now allows for broader federal involvement and prosecutions when state and local authorities are unable or unwilling to act, or when local prosecutions fail to vindicate a victim’s rights and society’s interest in eradicating bias-motivated crimes.”

The families of victims, many lawmakers, law enforcement entities, lawyers, community groups, and thousands of concerned citizens worked diligently over recent years to effect this change in the law. MALDEF is proud to stand among such partners.

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund