Ten years later, still no hate crime law

By Elke Kennedy
Sean’s Last Wish

This week, Americans are mourning the 10-year observance of the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard. It’s hard for any of us to relive the memories — a promising 21-year-old college student beaten to death and tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyo., just because he was gay.

Harder still for me. Watching the coverage of this high-profile case, I could not foresee that a similar tragedy would happen in my own family a few years later.

On May 16, 2007, my son Sean Kennedy was leaving a bar in Greenville. A car with three boys in it was parked outside the door, and one of them called Sean over, asking him for a cigarette. Sean gave him one and was walking away when Stephen Andrew Moeller got out, approached my son and called him anti-gay epithets. He punched him in the face, and Sean fell to the ground.

Sean’s murderer got back into the car and left my son dying there. A little later, he left a message on Sean’s friend’s phone: “You tell your faggot friend that when he wakes up he owes me $500 for my broken hand.” When I got to the hospital, the doctors told me that Sean’s injuries were not survivable because his brain had separated from his brain stem. Sean was pronounced brain dead at 11:20 that evening. He loved music, was happy with who he was and stood up for what he believed in. He wanted to be a Web designer. He was only 20 years old.

As hard as the stories of Matthew and Sean are to hear, they represent only two out of hundreds of violent incidents targeting gay and transgender people across the country.

Sadly, South Carolina’s absence of any hate crimes law makes gay and transgender residents more susceptible targets of such crimes. The FBI’s 2006 reporting found that 16 percent of hate crimes were based on sexual orientation — even more than crimes based on ethnicity or national origin. (South Carolina does not identify or track hate crimes statistics, so they are not included in national statistics.)

It is inexcusable in 2008 that South Carolina remains one of only five states in the country that does not have a hate crimes law. Tragically coincidental is the fact that Wyoming, where Matthew was murdered in 1998, also is among those five.

On June 11, Stephen Andrew Moeller was given a three-year sentence for Sean’s murder. Since he received credit for days served before he was released on bond, he will have to serve only 10 months in prison before he is eligible for parole. This shockingly short sentence sends the message that it is OK to attack and kill people just because you don’t like who they are. Justice was not done for my son.

Sean’s murder was not considered a hate crime because there is no such thing in our state. Every single one of our members of Congress also voted against the national Matthew Shepard Act, claiming that our state could handle these types of cases without federal laws. But this was certainly not so in Sean’s case.

We need a federal law to protect gay and transgender people such as Sean, but South Carolina can’t wait while Congress keeps stalling on an inclusive act and more young people like Sean are murdered. We must act now.

However, just changing our laws is not enough. We must change hearts and minds, and we must work together by embracing diversity, supporting and standing with each other and speaking out.

After Sean’s death, I founded Sean’s Last Wish (www.seanslastwish.com) to work on educating the public about the gaps in the law and the lack of protection. We educate about how bullying, intolerance, hatred and violence lead to these senseless crimes, and we provide information and resources about how everyone can help prevent hate crimes.

It’s time to honor Matthew’s and Sean’s legacies by sending this strong message: Bullying, hatred and violence have no place in our hearts, homes, churches, states and countries. No mother should ever have to bury her child. No mother should ever lose her child to hate and violence. No mother should ever have to fight for justice for her child.

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