A Virginia man may be the first in the state to be prosecuted under federal hate crime charges for an assault based on the victim's perceived sexual orientation. Virginia's state laws do not provide a basis for hate-crime prosecution related to sexual orientation, so federal prosecutors are stepping in to charge the man under the federal law.
The assault took place in an Amazon shipping facility in Chesterfield County. James William Hill, III reportedly assaulted a co-worker because of his perceived sexual orientation. In an interview with GayRVA, the 24-year-old victim reported Hill came up behind him, and hit him several times in the face without any provocation. “It all happened so fast I didn't really know what was going on,” said the victim, known as C.T. Hill reportedly admitted that the attack was based on the victim's sexual orientation, and he was fired from Amazon.
Local law enforcement decided not to prosecute Hill, in part because the state's hate crime laws do not extend to assaults based on sexual orientation. Federal prosecutors will charge Hill under a 2009 law aimed at protecting victims from assault based on gender identity or sexual orientation. According to a press release from the Justice Department, Hill willfully caused “bodily harm to the victim C.T. by assaulting C.T., including by punching the victim, because of C.T.'s actual or perceived sexual orientation.” If convicted, Hill could face up to 10 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine.
President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. Under 18 U.S. Code § 249, it is a crime to willfully cause bodily injury to any person because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The penalties can include up to 10 years in prison, or if death results, the possibility of life in prison.
The act was named for two men who were killed as a result of hate crime assaults. Matthew Shepard, was a 21-year-old gay college student who was beaten on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, later dying of his injuries. James Byrd Jr. was an African American who died after being dragged behind a pick-up truck in Texas. In response to these horrific deaths, Congress passed the federal hate crime legislation.
Virginia is one of about 20 states where hate crime laws do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Democratic Senator Barbara Favola recently introduced the related Senate Bill 799 to the Virginia Senate, but it failed to get out of the Courts of Justice Committee, failing 6 to 7. SB799 would have extended the definition of a hate crime to include sexual orientation and gender identity. As it stands, state law only considers a hate crime to include race, religion and ethnic origin.
Matthew Shepard's parents have even spoken out in support of the SB799. In a letter to The Washington Post, they write, “People should not fear reporting hate crimes because the law doesn't recognize them as victims. It's time that all people are included in Virginia's hate-crimes statute.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 2014 hate crime statistics, almost 20% of hate crimes reported in the U.S. were based on the victim's perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, with over 1,000 victims in 2014 alone. The majority of these attacks were reportedly due to male, anti-gay bias. The underlying criminal violations included rape, assault, intimidation and burglary.