President Obama signed the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act into law in 2009. But the effort to pass this landmark legislation started much earlier.
Legislative activists Michael Lieberman and David Stacy were there from the beginning, helping craft and lobby for the legislation which, among other things, expanded federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by "actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability."
"I worked on the law for 13 years to get it passed," said Lieberman.
"It was 13 years and 14 separate floor votes between the House and the Senate over that period of time," said Stacy.
"It made it possible to prosecute cases involving victims who are attacked, targeted because of their sexual orientation. That was not possible under federal law before then," said Lieberman.
Matthew Shephard, who's namesake is attached to the bill, was kidnapped, brutally beaten and left for dead in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming.
While Shephard's death was largely viewed as a hate crime, it couldn't be prosecuted as such federally because there were no federal criminal statutes that included sexual orientation.
"Everybody knows what a burning cross means and for law enforcement to treat that as trespass, damage to property, unlawful burning, you're missing something, you're missing something big," said Lieberman.
"When you commit a crime against somebody, it scares more than just that person. It's intended to intimidate a community," said Stacy.
In the years since the Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed, it's been used to prosecute hate crimes after major incidents, including the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, and the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting — the deadliest antisemitic hate crime in U.S. history.
But its first use in a criminal prosecution came in Mississippi in 2015 after the killing of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old trans woman.
Jerome Lorrain, a retired FBI agent, was the lead investigator on Williamson's case.
"Once we examined the body and determined that Mercedes was transgender, well, that brought a different element to it," said Lorrain.
Lorrain says prosecuting the case under the new law at the time was risky because it hadn't been used successfully yet.
"But motives matter, and we felt like we needed for the whole story to be told, and the victims deserve that the truth come out," said Lorrain.
Josh Vallum pleaded guilty to Williamson's murder and stated in open court he was motivated by her gender.
"It showed that, if you commit a hate crime in Mississippi, the FBI is going to investigate it, the U.S. Attorney's Office is going to prosecute it and you will be held accountable. And so it sent a very strong message — in Mississippi but also throughout the United States," said Lorrain.
According to the FBI, there were more than 10,000 reported hate crimes in 2021 — the most ever recorded.
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