To the editor:
The legal status of hate crime laws is far from “questionable” or in “tricky legal waters” as Sarah Siskind asserts in her article “It’s a Love-Hate Crime Relationship,” September 21, 2012.
The United States Supreme Court upheld enhanced sentences for bias-inspired criminal acts back in 1993 when it unanimously recognized that these crimes inflict greater individual and societal harm and are consistent with the Constitution.
The Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which formed the basis for the Ohio convictions that Siskind references in her article, does not create special rights for different classes of victims nor does not it punish free thought. Hate crime laws punish the actions of individuals whose violent acts were motivated by their hatred. When an individual or group of people commits a crime based on biased beliefs and intentionally targets another for violence, the law is triggered.
It is too simple to characterize “hate” as the basis for all crimes. Hate violence is intentional, targeted and designed to send a message of intimidation. The Ohio victims were targeted solely because of their religious practice and the violent act of cutting their beards was intended to send a message.
The law does not carve out, nor should it, an exception when the victim and perpetrator are of the same religion or race. Police, prosecutors and jurors are focused on motive. The Ohio jury was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that religion formed the basis of the defendants’ actions and reached a verdict on that basis.
America is a unique country where building a single nation out of many diverse ways of life requires a strong set of laws making clear that attempts to divide us by intimidation will not be taken lightly. Hate crime laws help fill that purpose.
Robert O. Trestan
Eastern Civil Rights Counsel
Anti Defamation League