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Hate in America: 20 years after Matthew Shepard's murder

Hate in America: 20 years after Matthew Shepard's murder

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LARAMIE, Wyo. (Circa) — “I would not want my life to be memorialized forever as a 21-year-old college student,” said Judy Shepard. “You change. You become somebody different. Matt will forever be 21 years old.”

On Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, burned, and left to die tied to a wooden fence in Laramie, Wyoming.

He was found 18 hours later and rushed to the hospital in critical condition. He never regained consciousness.

“We were in Saudi Arabia at the time,” recounts his father Dennis Shepard. “His Aunt called. She just said, ‘Matt’s in the hospital. He’s in critical condition. You need to get back here to the states as quickly as you can. He's got severe head injuries.’ That's all they said. So we assumed this whole time that it was a car accident.”

Jason Marsden was a friend of Matthew’s. He was working as a journalist for the local newspaper at the time.

“I was in the newsroom and we got a press release on the fax machine saying a young man had been very badly beaten, found outside of town, and was in intensive care in critical condition and that they were investigating the possibility that it was an anti-gay hate crime,” says Marsden.

His murder brought international attention to hate crimes and LGBTQ rights.

In the aftermath of Matthew's murder, Judy Shepard dedicated her life to fighting and lobbying for hate crime laws.

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"The leadership at the time was George W. Bush," says Judy, "Who from the beginning of his administration made it very clear he would never, never sanction legislation to protect or advance the cause of the gay community."

The election of Barack Obama opened the door for progress.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

"Here is a man who definitely would understand social injustice," says Judy, "As well as social justice, and that proved to be the case. Positive legislation, positive thoughts, positive remarks."

In the eight years since the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 came into effect (Byrd was a black man dragged to his death behind a truck by racists in Texas), it’s been notoriously difficult to prosecute crimes under it because of the high burden of proof lawyers face in showing a defendant was motivated by bias.

If you're not a straight, white, Christian man in this community right now, in this country, I am worried about you.
Judy Shepard

After the election of President Trump, Jeff Sessions was named attorney general, putting all the progress the Shepards made at risk.

"The campaign just unleashed all of this vulgarity and hate against everyone that isn't the same," says Judy.

State agencies are not required to report hate crimes to the Department of Justice. With no mandatory reporting, Judy and Dennis fear many hate crimes go unnoticed and uncounted.

"It has become a very scary situation," says Judy. "Not just for the gay community, but all of the protected classes. All the minority classes. People of color. Different religions. Different national origins. Immigrants, refugees, the gay community, women. If you're not a straight, white, Christian man in this community right now, in this country, I am worried about you. Because, backlash, progress is definitely against you."

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