US: Trans Teen's Murder Case Raises Question: Do LGBTQ Hate Crime Laws Work?

Each year, for the past three years, LGBTQ advocacy groups have tallied the killings of more than 20 transgender people in the U.S. Yet state or federal hate crime laws are rarely used to prosecute the slayings.

Now many LGBTQ-rights groups are questioning the effectiveness of the laws, saying they sometimes focus too tightly on individual acts without addressing underlying bias or wider violence. The volatile issue was back in the spotlight this week as Missouri authorities investigated the killing of a transgender teen who was stabbed in the genitals and had her eyes gouged out.

Investigators insist — without specifying a motive — that Ally Lee Steinfeld’s death was not the result of anti-transgender hate. Even if the case were deemed to fall under Missouri’s hate crime law, it probably would not result in a heavier penalty, since first-degree murder is already punishable by execution or life imprisonment. Missouri is one of 17 states with hate crime laws that cover offenses targeting people on the basis of their gender identity. But those provisions have led to few prosecutions.

A Mississippi man, Joshua Vallum, received a 49-year prison sentence in the 2015 killing of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old transgender woman who was shocked with a stun gun, stabbed and beaten to death to keep Vallum’s fellow Latin Kings gang members from discovering the two were having sex.

A few weeks after Vallum’s conviction, Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly vowed to protect the rights of all transgender Americans and said he had directed the Justice Department’s civil rights division to review some other cases in which transgender people were killed.

However, major LGBTQ and civil rights groups have been skeptical of Sessions’ pledge, noting that the Trump administration has taken other steps to erode transgender people’s rights, such as proposing to ban them from military service and rescinding guidelines that would allow transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice at school.

“The department’s work in preventing, deterring and responding to hate violence cannot be seen in isolation from its recent counterproductive and discriminatory actions,” more than 70 advocacy groups said earlier this month in an open letter to John Gore, the acting head of the civil rights division.

Transgender rights lawyer Dru Levasseur of Lambda Legal, one of the groups that signed the letter, said Lambda and its allies still believe that LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws are valuable. Read more via NBC