The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi is trying to broaden awareness of hate crimes. As MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, it's trying to get the word out about the resources available to identify, investigate and prosecute these types of crimes.
Dennis Shepard's 21-year-old son, Matthew Shepard, was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.
"We didn't even know what a hate crime was," he says. "We just knew he'd been murdered because he was gay. We didn't realize that that could be considered a hate crime, and in some states, it was."
Wyoming was not one of those states, and federal law offered no protections at that time either. But a decade of advocacy by the Shepard family helped change this when the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law in 2009.
The law helped broaden the definition of what could be prosecuted as a federal hate crime. It included, for the first time, gender identity and sexual orientation.
"It was the first national legislation that actually gave equal rights to the LGBT community instead of taking rights away," Shepard says.
Shepard spoke Thursday at a conference in Biloxi organized by the Department of Justice. Southern District of Mississippi U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis says he hopes it helped increase awareness about hate crimes and victims rights.
"So that we can acknowledge that unfortunately hate crimes continue in this country, and that there are means to work together to, first of all, prevent it, to protect the victims, and also to investigate and prosecute it," he says.
More than 300 law enforcement officials from around Mississippi attended the one-day training.