PA’s hate-crime law still leaves many groups out

Bills in legislature stalled

Photo by Alexandra Kanik | PublicSource
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Jane’s whole life has been like one long hate crime.

As a teenager, her classmates beat her to a pulp because she shaved her legs. Her family believed that praying would cure what the belt didn’t. 

Jane was born a man. Today, she is a woman.

Jane, a transgender woman, asked PublicSource not to use her name because of fear that she might be targeted. She completed her transition from male to female in rural Pennsylvania about two years ago.

“You start to hate yourself,” said Jane, 59, who is tall, with fair skin and a quiet, even voice. The color on her cheekbones matched her rose-colored sweater, with three pearl buttons dotting the collar.

Jane said she was raped in March of this year, targeted because she is transgender. She did not report the rape to police.

“All these incidents are crimes,” Jane said. “And it was all because of who I was.”

The problems Jane describes are often labeled hate crimes -- criminal offenses against a person or group because of a bias. But Pennsylvania is one of 15 states that exclude sexual orientation and gender identity in its definition, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In 2008, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and ancestry were removed from the protection of Pennsylvania’s hate-crime law. Since then, high-profile crimes against specific groups across the state could not be prosecuted under the state’s hate-crime law. If they had been, those convicted could have received more severe sentences.

Currently, the state law protects race, religion, color and national origin. Two bills aimed at adding protections to the hate-crime law have stalled in the state’s House and Senate Judiciary committees.

A federal hate-crime law covers sexual orientation, gender identity and other designations not in the state law. However, federal jurisdiction is generally limited to crimes on federal property or across state lines.

Nearly 260,000 non-fatal hate crimes occurred annually in the U.S. between 2007 and 2011, and an estimated two in three go unreported, according a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study. The agency’s surveys provide what are considered to be the most accurate numbers, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

‘A disgrace’

In 2001, Michael Auker was left for dead in his trailer home in Middleburg, Pa., about 50 miles north of Harrisburg, according to news reports. Auker had been drinking beer with two male neighbors, who reportedly thought he made sexual advances toward them.

The beating left Auker, who survived, in a coma for months. The neighbors were given prison sentences.

Following the Auker case, changes were called for in the state’s hate-crime law, the Ethnic Intimidation Act of 1982. So, in 2002, actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability and ancestry were added to the act. 

But the constitutionality of how the language was added -- as part of an agricultural bill --  was challenged and the state’s Supreme Court removed the protections in 2008.

Since then, legislative attempts to add them back to the law have failed, legislative sources said.

“I think that is a disgrace,” said state representative Brendan Boyle, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia. “Sexual orientation should be a part of our hate-crime law, for [people] bullied, beaten up or targeted simply for being gay,” he said.

Boyle is the primary sponsor of House Bill 177, a bill aimed at re-expanding the hate-crime law. It has been stalled in the House Judiciary Committee since January.

A similar bill, Senate Bill 42, has stood still in the Senate Judiciary. The primary sponsor is Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny/Armstrong/Westmoreland. 

Neither Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks/Montgomery, chairman of the Senate committee, nor Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, chairman of the House committee, responded to calls for comment. 

Spokespeople for both chairmen said no action was scheduled on the bills.

ACLU concerns

The American Family Association of Pennsylvania, a chapter of a national fundamentalist Christian nonprofit, is an opponent of expanding the state’s hate-crime law. 

“These laws are being lobbied by homosexual activists,” said Diane Gramley, the organization’s president. “We will have a situation where Christians will be arrested, simply for voicing their views on homosexuality.”

The American Family Association of Pennsylvania is categorized as anti-gay by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that advocates for First Amendment rights, has also raised concerns about hate-crime laws.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said the group is opposed to designating an act as a hate crime unless there is evidence of bias at the time the act is committed.

In other words, someone who commits a crime shouldn’t be prosecuted for a hate crime just because they belong to a hate group or own hate-group literature, Walczak explained.

For Gramley, the issue is about safeguarding First Amendment rights. But it is also about the fact that race, color, religion and national origin are unchangeable, she said.

Gramley said she believes homosexuality is changeable.

Mental and physical disability

Headline-grabbing incidents against specific groups have occurred across the state since 2008, including incidents against those who have mental and physical disabilities. They also are unprotected under the state’s law.

Jennifer Daugherty, 30 at the time of her 2010 murder, was described as having the mental capacity of a 12- or 14 year-old, according to news reports.

In Greensburg, six people, whom Daugherty considered friends, bound her with Christmas lights and beat her. They shaved her head and forced her to drink urine.

The torture lasted more than two days, ending in her death.

In an incident in 2011, four mentally-disabled people were found in a Philadelphia basement.

Victims had been tied, denied food and forced to perform sex acts. Two died. The alleged captors targeted people with disabilities to steal their Social Security checks, according to press accounts. (The case has not yet gone to trial, and could be prosecuted as a federal hate crime.)

The sentencing could not get much worse in many of these high-profile crimes -- life in prison, the death penalty.

But because Pennsylvania's hate-crime law excludes those classes, state prosecutors are left without a tool to enhance the sentencing and hold the perpetrator accountable, said Christopher Mallios, a former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia.

Mallios now works with AEquitas, a nonprofit that provides resources to prosecute violence against women.

Lower level offenses, like spray painting someone’s home with an anti-gay slur, probably would not be prosecuted federally, but they can be devastating, he said.

“Without an inclusive state hate-crime statute, you have victims and communities that are left without protections,” he said.

Like being left-handed

For Jane, living two lives began to take its toll by the late 1990s. Suicide attempts were frequent, she said.

“I finally decided I was either going to die or transition,” she said.

In 2010, in a rural community in Western Pennsylvania, Jane, who had been taking hormone treatments, planned her surgery and coming out to coworkers and family members.

Things became ugly quickly. She lost her job and she and her wife were told they should leave town, she said.

Eventually, they settled in a new community.

There is little incentive for people like Jane to report crimes or threats because they have few legal protections, said Liz de Jesus, the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

De Jesus, who lives in Beaver County, said her son told his family he was gay when he was 19 or 20. By that time, he was “like a pressure cooker,” she said.

When asked why he had not told them sooner, de Jesus said he told her he was worried that his family might be targeted for a hate crime.

“People don’t choose to be left-handed or right-handed. When you’re born, you are what you are,” she said. “We’re families just like other families out there…. Why should they not be given the same protections?”

Emily DeMarco can be reached at 412-315-0262 or edemarco@publicsource.org.

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  • The more people who choose to be themselves the better and happier all humans will be. - by Scott Ware on December 6, 2013 - 6:55pm