The fact Stallone Trosper and James “Sonny” Goggles are victims of hate is self-evident, and admitted by the man accused of shooting them.
But whether they are victims of hate in a legal sense can’t be determined in Wyoming, because the state is one of only five in the nation that does not have a hate crime law on the books.
That must change. Wyoming legislators have rejected proposed hate or bias crime laws for the past quarter-century. It is time for the victims of such crimes to receive full justice, and for the guilty to pay for the damage also inflicted on an entire class of people.
To do that, the criminal justice system — prosecutors, judges and juries — needs to be armed with the tools to determine if, beyond a reasonable doubt, someone who is on trial for a crime committed it as an act of hate toward part of society that needs protection.
Not “special” protections, as many critics have charged, but protections that should be afforded to every single person in our country. No one should have to live in a world where it’s accepted that someone can be targeted for violence just because they are different from others.
It’s not surprising Wind River Indian Reservation tribes and Fremont County Democrats are calling for legislators to establish a hate crime law that allows for enhanced penalties. What is baffling is the fact Wyoming does not already have a hate crime statute, because the state has certainly had many victims of hatred. These crimes need to be fought with every resource we can use.
Those who oppose the state adopting a hate crime law maintain it’s unnecessary because a crime committed for any reason is still a crime, and a convicted person will be punished. It’s always been their No. 1 argument, and it’s not likely to change. The reasoning was cited recently by two Fremont County legislators — Sen. Cale Case and Rep. Lloyd Larsen, both Lander Republicans — in their response to the latest call for a hate crime law, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
Such a belief may sound reasonable, but it’s actually wrong. A hate crime is different than any “ordinary” crime, from murder to lesser offenses, because it’s aimed at intimidating an entire class of people who are different than the majority.
When a crime is committed against a person due to race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender, others in the same protected class also become victims. Fear of the same crime being committed against them can cause mental and physical health problems, lead to isolation and result in unnecessary changes in routine daily habits.
In other words, it has the power to negatively change people’s lives forever.
If a synagogue has been vandalized and covered with anti-Jewish and Nazi symbols, people may be so afraid they stop attending services. The vandalism is one crime against the property owner that should be punished, but what about the attempts to intimidate all Jews from practicing their religion? It deserves an enhanced penalty, because the scope of the crime goes beyond typical instances of vandalism.
It also goes beyond the residents of a particular community. If a number of churches with a majority of black congregation members are burned down in different locations, news of such crimes travels fast. The crime of arson due to hate affects more people than a random target would.
Roy Clyde, a Riverton city parks worker, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder of Trosper and attempted murder of Goggles immediately after admitting to shooting them at a Riverton detox center on July 18. According to law enforcement, Clyde was angry because homeless people routinely drink alcohol, and loiter in city parks under his watch, and he wanted to send a message it won’t be tolerated.
Clyde, who is white, admittedly hates homeless people, but the two Northern Arapaho men he chose to shoot were not homeless. Many reservation residents believe his real target for violence was Native Americans based partly on the fact Clyde told police he was hunting “park rangers” — a local slur against homeless Indians. It should be up to a court to determine the motivation behind the underlying criminal acts, but currently hate is not a factor that can be expressly punished.
A person can walk into a black church in Charleston, S.C., and shoot nine members of the congregation, as Dylann Roof is accused of doing, and not have committed a hate crime under state law because South Carolina — like Wyoming — does not recognize that hate crimes exist. So it will be up to the federal government to prosecute the defendant in the horrific South Carolina killings, using a federal law that has its roots in a hate crime committed in Wyoming.
Like Trosper and Goggles and the South Carolina church members, Matthew Shepard did nothing wrong. The gay University of Wyoming student was brutally murdered near Laramie in 1998, selected as a victim by two men because of his homosexuality.
Throughout the world, Shepard became a symbol of hate crimes against gays. When Congress passed a federal hate crime law in 2009, it was named after Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was murdered when a group of Texas men tied him to a truck and dragged him to his death.
Unbelievably, Wyoming’s all-GOP congressional delegation voted against the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, despite strong support for the law from constituents throughout the state. Having the law on the books may not have stopped Shepard’s killers, but it could deter others. Enhanced penalties can also be used by prosecutors as bargaining chips when lawyers representing first-degree murderers try to reach a plea bargain and keep their clients from serving life in prison or being executed.
State Democratic lawmakers like Jayne Mockler unsuccessfully sponsored bias crime law bills in the early 1990s, long before Shepard was killed. Mockler recognized the need for such laws because, historically, minorities such as gays and blacks have been singled out for violence in Wyoming. Despite the demonstrated need for such laws, simply getting a hearing to consider a hate crime bill in the Wyoming House or Senate was seen as a small victory. The GOP legislative leadership treated such bills with disdain and never gave them serious consideration.
Just as the criminals who targeted them were trying to send a message to other minorities about what can happen to them in Wyoming, state government has long needed to send the message that those who perpetrate these acts will be severely punished. That must include longer jail sentences.
Another common argument offered by opponents is that hate crime laws are tantamount to the “thought police” arresting people for their thinking because it could lead to an illegal act. That’s simply not the case. No one is advocating law enforcement officials should be mind-readers who are qualified to determine precisely why a crime is committed.
A hate crime law is meant to be a deterrent. If the hatred of an entire class of citizens is found to be a primary motive behind a crime, offenders know beforehand that prosecutors will attempt to put them in jail for a longer period of time. It should help convince them not to commit the crime.
When the vast majority of states strongly agree hate-based crimes should receive an enhanced penalty, it puts Wyoming in a very unfavorable light, especially on top of the worldwide negative publicity the state received after Shepard was killed. Many people — myself included — are still outraged that there has not been ANY response by Wyoming to change its laws in the nearly 17 years since the tragedy.
What has Wyoming learned about hate crimes because of Shepard’s murder and other hate-motivated crimes in the Equality State in the intervening years? Apparently nothing, since state lawmakers refuse to recognize hate crimes even exist. It’s all been labeled under crime, to be treated equally dispassionately.
If we’re ever going to keep people from being the victims of hate crimes, Wyoming legislators need to be passionately told by voters that we want all perpetrators to be properly punished. Arguments that all crimes are punished anyway or that no one deserves special rights are nothing more than pathetic excuses that create more victims.
All people deserve the right to not be intimidated, maimed or killed simply because of who they are. That’s not possible today in Wyoming, but it should be an easy decision for legislators to make.
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