Hate Crimes Law Still Needed, Some Say

Peggy Lowe, Denver Post Staff Writer, The Denver Post

April 6, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Although the plea bargain in the Matthew Shepard case Monday was viewed as "justice served" by many in the gay community, Russell Henderson's guilty admission did nothing to assuage some activists and only highlighted the need in their minds for a federal hate-crimes law.

The plea doesn't allow people "to call the crime by its name," said Suzanne Banning, executive director of the Colorado Legal Initiatives Project, a gay legal group.

"It just becomes in the books 'a robbery gone bad.' We see it as a lot more than that," she said.

Henderson, 21, dodged the death penalty with his guilty pleas to two counts in Shepard's murder. Henderson was sentenced Monday to two consecutive life sentences, one on a count of felony murder and another on kidnapping. 'Justice has been served'

"It seems, based on reports, that justice has been served. The Wyoming authorities in this case should be applauded for bringing this piece of the case to a rapid close," said David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund in Washington, D.C.

However, the Shepard case, as well as the dragging death of a black man by white men in Texas, points to the need for a federal hate-crimes law that heightens the penalties for crimes against minorities, Smith said.

"There's this notion that they're picking on a victim that society doesn't like – for whatever reason – and that they can get away with it," Smith said.

But some in the gay community said Shepard's sexual orientation shouldn't be as important as the terrible details of the crime or its consequences.

The young Henderson will be spending the rest of his life in prison thinking about what he did, said Bob Rosenberg, vice president of the Colorado chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay group.

"As far as I'm concerned, I would not like to see this as a 'gay vs. straight' or 'this minority vs. that minority.' This is a brutal murder," he said.

Others remarked that forgoing Henderson's trial could generate both good and bad reactions.

Sue Anderson, executive director of Equality Colorado, said the lack of a trial will spare Shepard's family, friends and others the "trauma of hearing the details of this horrific murder."

When news of Shepard's beating and death circulated through the gay and lesbian community in October, many people who had also been victims of hate crimes were again traumatized, Anderson said. Phone calls poured in to Equality Colorado's office, she said.

"They wanted to talk about it because they were retraumatized by constantly hearing about it and reading about it and seeing it on the nightly news," Anderson said.

But the lack of a trial might also hurt other members of the community, Anderson said.

"We don't have the catharsis that a trial can bring for the community at large, to know that someone was brought to justice through the legal system," Anderson said.

Ultimately, Anderson said, the community will have another trial to watch when Henderson's co-defendant, Aaron McKinney, goes on trial in August.

"This thing is not over with yet," she said.

It's likely Henderson will testify during that trial, defense lawyers said. Such deals are fairly common and are offered to "the person you believe to be less culpable" in order to convict the second suspect, said Patrick Furman, a University of Colorado law professor and criminal attorney.

"It's standard practice for prosecutors to make a deal with one defendant that involves that defendant testifying against a co-defendant," he said.

The plea bargain was probably the only option available to Henderson's lawyer to escape the death penalty, said Ed Nugent, a Grand Junction lawyer and president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.

"Certainly, when you can enter life in prison vs. a death sentence in a case that looked as bad as that one did, you do it," he said. "That's what you're trying to do at that point: save your client's life."