Live

Watch CBSN Live

Matthew Shepard's parents praise hate crime progress despite "hypocritical" Justice Department

FBI warns of "threat" of hate crimes

When then-president Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. hate crimes prevention act into law on Oct. 28, 2009, he said, "No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love." 

In the 10 years since, the landmark act named for the victims of two 1998 crimes that shocked the nation has greatly expanded the government's ability to prosecute federal hate crimes, including in cases of victims targeted because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

gettyimages-92429448.jpg
Then-president Barack Obama applauds the sisters of James Byrd, Jr., Betty Byrd Boatner, second from right, and Louvon Harris, second from left, and the parents of Matthew Shepard, Judy Shepard, center, and Dennis Shepard left, after Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act October 28, 2009.  SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shepard's parents Dennis and Judy Shepard tell CBS News, "We've come a long way" when it comes to prosecuting hate crimes since their son's murder, but there's still more to be done to combat a recent surge in hate crimes.
 
On Oct. 7, 1998, their son Matthew, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence near Laramie and left to die by killers who targeted him because he was gay. Months before, on June 7, 49-year-old Texas father James Byrd Jr., who was African-American, was targeted by white supremacists and dragged behind a truck to his death. The cases are among those spotlighted in a recent Oxygen documentary, "Uncovered: Killed by Hate."
 
The killers of Shepard and Byrd were convicted of murder, but despite the bias motivations in both cases, neither killing was prosecuted as a hate crime. That's because neither Wyoming nor Texas had hate crime laws at the time, and federal hate crime laws did not include victims targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Civil Rights Law of 1968 did include victims of racial violence, but only in the cases of victims engaging in a federally protected activity like voting or going to school, according to the Department of Justice.
 
It would take a decade-long push by civil rights advocates and the victims' families to close that gap with the Shepard-Byrd act. The law removed the racial violence  loophole and was expanded to include victims targeted because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. In passing Shepard-Byrd, Congress found that the federal law at the time was insufficient to address the impacts of hate crimes, which "devastates not just the actual victim and the family and friends of the victim, but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected."
 
Since then, the Department of Justice says it has specifically used Shepard-Byrd to charge more than 100 defendants in about 50 hate crime cases, with more than 80 of those defendants federally convicted. The Department of Justice told CBS News those cases are a key part of the department's overall hate crimes prosecution program, which has seen more than 330 defendants charged in more than 210 cases in the last 10 years.

Matt_shepard_image5168947x.jpg
Matthew Shepard was a gay University of Wyoming college student who was beaten and left for dead in a Wyoming pasture near Laramie, Wyo., on Oct. 7, 1998. AP Photo

While states remain the primary prosecutors of hate crimes, the Department of Justice can act as a backstop to fill the gap where states can't or won't prosecute. State hate crime laws vary widely, and four have no laws on the books.
 
Judy and Dennis Shepard have spent the more than 20 years since their son's death pushing for change through a foundation in his name to advocate against hate.
 
"We've come a long way, and the inclusion of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability is huge," Judy Shepard said.

But the Shepards have pushed back against what they call the Justice Department's hypocrisy for celebrating Shepard-Byrd while at the same time, they say, arguing against other protections for the LGBTQ community. The Shepards did not attend a Department of Justice event to commemorate Shepard-Byrd's anniversary this month, instead having a representative read a letter in which they called on Attorney General William Barr to do more to disavow hate. They pointed to the Justice Department's recent argument to the Supreme Court that federal Title VII employment law doesn't include protections for employees who are discriminated against because they are transgender. 
 
"We find it interesting and hypocritical that he would invite us to this event commemorating a hate crime law named after our son and Mr. Byrd, while, at the same time, asking the Supreme Court to allow the legalized firing of transgender employees," the statement read. 

byrd.jpg
In this Wed., April 10, 2019, photo Mylinda Byrd Washington, 66, left, and Louvon Byrd Harris, 61, hold up photographs of their brother James Byrd Jr. in Houston. AP

In an August brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department argued the law as written in 1964 prohibits sex-based employment practices that treat women less favorably than similarly situated men, or vice-versa -- not practices that treat transgender people less favorably than non-transgender people. Changes to the law, they argued, should be left to Congress and not the courts.
 
The Shepards say there's also a long way to go when it comes to gaps in data about the impacts of hate crimes across the country. The FBI collects data reported by local jurisdictions, but advocates have long contended that the numbers are incomplete, in part because law enforcement agencies aren't required to report them to the federal government.
 
"We're doing a lot of work trying to educate the public that there is no mandatory hate crime reporting -- it's all voluntary," Dennis Shepard said.
 
At least 92 cities with populations exceeding 100,000 either did not report data to the FBI or reported zero hate crimes in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The data available, though limited, indicates a troubling trend -- hate crimes spiked about 17 percent year-to-year in 2017, rising for the third year in a row. 
 
Advocates say the data gap is apparent because two of the most notorious hate crimes in recent years were never reported to the government, even though they were prosecuted as hate crimes. The killing of Heather Heyer in the 2017 Charlottesville car attack as she protested the "Unite the Right" rally, and the fatal 2016 shooting of Khalid Jabara in Tulsa by a neighbor who had terrorized the victim's Lebanese family, were both left out of national hate crime statistics collected by the FBI. Proposed legislation named for the victims, the Heather Heyer and Khalid Jabara NO HATE act, would provide incentives for hate crime reporting and grants for state-run hate crime hotlines.

Rally In Solidarity With The Victims Of Charlottesville Held In Minneapolis
A protester carries an image of Heather Heyer during a demonstration against racism on August 14, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

The Justice Department said in a statement that efforts are underway to improve investigation and reporting of hate crimes at the state and local level, including developing comprehensive training curriculums for local law enforcement, and providing resources on a new hate crimes website.  

Amid the push for more accurate data, the Shepards caution that the devastating impact of hate crimes can be lost. They spoke about the need to humanize the victims, who they say in the media can often be reduced to numbers or statistics, rather than people. The Shepards tell their son's story in the context of who he was -- a people person who made friends easily, loved to travel, spoke multiple languages and had a passion for equality.

"We want to make him seem human to the people we talk to," Dennis Shepard said.

Judy Shepard said oftentimes, hate crime victims aren't thought of "as having family and friends, and representing a whole community of folks suffering exclusion and derision and hate." 

"I just think we've become so numb, because [hate crimes have] become a part of our culture, like mass shootings," Judy Shepard said. "We talk about them for 10 minutes and then we move on -- I just think that's really tragic."

View CBS News In