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Federal Hate Crime Law Protects LGBT People


Supporters of LGBT rights are applauding the first federal hate crime conviction involving the murder of a transgender woman in the final days of the Obama administration. But they’re also concerned about the future of such prosecutions under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As a U.S. Senator, Jeff Sessions called a federal hate crime law passed in 2009 “overly broad,” and said there was no need to add protections for gay and transgender people.

“My view is and was, a concern that it appeared that these cases were being prosecuted effectively in state courts,” said Sessions, who added that expanding hate crime protections to LGBT individuals was “unwarranted and possibly unconstitutional.”

But Sessions did make this pledge.

“A law has been passed; the Congress has spoken, you can be sure I will enforce it,” Sessions told the committee.

Joshua Vallum is to be sentenced in Mississippi  on May 15 for the slaying of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, who was born male but transitioned to a female. Vallum is the first person prosecuted for targeting a transgender person under the federal statute.

“This is a man who picked up a transgender teenager in Dauphin Island, Alabama [and] crossed state lines. The reason for the murder was so he wouldn’t be exposed for having this homosexual relationship,” said Joshua Jones, a Pensacola attorney who handles LGBT legal issues.

According to the FBI, between one-half and one-point-eight percent of all single-bias hate crimes from 2013 to 2015 were motivated by gender identity bias. Those numbers, says Jones, are on the rise.

“In my mind, a hate crime is one that is borne out of animus toward a particular minority group,” said Jones. “We have already seen an increase in hate crimes in the United States since January; not just with the LGBT community but also with the Muslim community and the African-American community.”

In Florida there were 102 hate crimes reported in 2015, the latest available figures, compared to 73 the previous year according to the state Attorney General’s Office. That’s a nearly 40 percent increase. Historically, hate crimes are a top priority for the feds. The FBI usually handles them, and the attorney general need not necessarily have to sign off. But Jones says that could be changing.

“The entire tone of the Trump administration from the top down, particularly in the Justice Department, has been unfriendly towards LGBT causes,” said Jones. “The great example is just a few weeks ago, the Justice Department directed schools to disregard the Obama administration’s direction on transgender students using the bathrooms.”

In the First Judicial Circuit, which serves Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Counties, Assistant State Attorney John Molchan says they’ve been seeing more such cases due in large part to the expansion of the hate crime list.

“Physical or mental disabilities or advanced ages have certainly come into the realm,” said Molchan. “And that’s certainly going to increase our numbers on these kind of cases.” 

Under Florida’s Hate Crime Reporting Law, those convicted face more severe penalties than for non-hate crimes.

“If you have a crime committed with that idea of hate or prejudice as a focal point, then in essence it moves the crime up one degree,” Molchan said. “For instance, a felony of the second degree would be reclassified as a felony of the first degree. Instead of a maximum of 15 years [in prison] the perpetrator would be looking at a maximum of 30.”

Figures obtained by the Associated Press show that 47 people nationwide have been prosecuted using the 2009 law, with 37 convictions. Attorney Joshua Jones says whatever the difficulties, expanding the law to include LGBT people made an important statement in 2009, which stands today.

“At that time the message was ‘This is a legitimate category of hate,’” said Jones. “And it also points out that there’s a difference between a random murder, and a murder or crime that’s specifically targeting a particular group because of a characteristic that is innate.”

Or as Dru Levasseur, counsel for the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal has put it: “This law is meant to send the message back that these lives matter.”