I was there, representing the Matthew Shepard Foundation, among dozens of other civil rights leaders and hate crime experts. Our message today in response is simple: actions speak louder than words, and we are listening closely.
In his remarks, the attorney general lauded the successful prosecution of Joshua Brandon Vallum, who was sentenced this spring to 49 years in prison for kidnapping and gruesomely murdering Mercedes Williamson, his transgender ex-girlfriend. She was the first transgender homicide victim given justice under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act.
All of us who love justice are grateful it was delivered in Mercedes Williamson’s heartbreaking case. But it is worth noting that the Justice Department’s groundbreaking prosecution of Vallum predates Mr. Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General.
Let me underscore the point. Credit for this historic conviction rests with the Mississippi federal prosecutor who obtained the verdict, the trial attorney from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the FBI agents who investigated the crime, the federal judge who issued the sentence — and Mr. Sessions’ predecessor, Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who gave the final approval to prosecute the case.
It’s fine for Attorney General Sessions to remind us of cases in which federal leadership made a difference for victims of hate crimes and their loved ones. What we are waiting to hear, and see for ourselves, is a Department of Justice prepared to challenge the current climate of hate speech and division, and the troubling cutbacks of civil rights protections, that have marked the early months of this new administration. Instead, we have so far seen slashing cuts to civil rights program budgets, a cynically discriminatory immigration ban, troubling voter suppression initiatives and a disturbing withdrawal of simple protections for transgender schoolchildren.
FBI reports show hate crimes against African Americans, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people and Native Americans all increased in 2015, and nearly 2,000 hate crime reports emerged in the months following the 2016 election. There can be no doubt that inflammatory, even violent rhetoric against minority communities of every type blithely littered our national dialogue during and since the new president’s election. As a key leader in that campaign, the attorney general has a unique opportunity – in fact, a solemn duty – to boldly and uncompromisingly confront hatred in its many forms, long before it produces new, senseless acts of bias-motivated violence to prosecute.
The words are great to hear: hatred is not an American value and these crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But what we really need now is sincere action to reduce the targeting and threats against our neighbors who live, love or pray a little differently than the majority. We have yet to see the Justice Department turn that corner. We hold out aching hope that it does soon.
Today, Mr. Sessions said in his speech: I specifically directed that the files of these [anti-trans] cases be reviewed to ensure that there is no single person or group behind these murders or to what extent hate crime motivation lies behind such murders.
We all must hold him accountable to his word and make sure that he sees that through. And he must also consider, and investigate, the more troubling possibility: that there is no single murderer responsible, but instead, a single wave of rhetoric that helped carry him to his station today.
Our founder Judy Shepard reminds us that, in 2009, as the Shepard-Byrd hate crime act was finally nearing passage:
“Senator Sessions strongly opposed the hate crimes bill — characterizing hate crimes as mere ‘thought crimes.’ … My son was not killed by ‘thoughts’ or because his murderers said hateful things. My son was brutally beaten … with the butt of a .357 magnum pistol, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in freezing temperatures because he was gay. Senator Sessions’ repeated efforts to diminish the life-changing acts of violence covered by the Hate Crimes Prevention Act horrified me then, as a parent who knows the true cost of hate, and it terrifies me today to see that this same person is now being nominated as the country’s highest authority to represent justice and equal protection under the law for all Americans.”
Things have changed, and Mr. Sessions now holds that authority. We know the true cost of hate here at the Foundation, and we know you do, too. And that is why we hope you will stand with us in putting the pressure on Attorney General Sessions. He must keep his word.
Thank you for your support. Thanks to your generosity, I am able to travel to DC to represent the Foundation at events like this.
Cynthia Deitle, Esq.
FBI Special Agent (ret.) Programs and Operations Director
Matthew Shepard Foundation