WASHINGTON, D.C. —
Over the years, Congress expanded what became known as "hate crime" law. Many states also adopted their own laws for crimes motivated by bias. And many cases with civil rights overtones were prosecuted under conventional murder and assault statutes.
Two of the most notorious state cases — the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. — inspired further expansion of federal law, although it took more than a decade.
Shepard, a gay college student, was abducted and brutally beaten by two men who left him tied to a fence post in a remote field in Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. Three white men chained Byrd, a black man from East Texas, by his ankles to the back of a pickup and dragged him to death on a country road in June 1998. Both cases ended with convictions on state murder charges.
Outrage over those attacks helped propel Congress and President Barack Obama to strengthen federal hate crime law in 2009 by increasing penalties and removing the requirement that the victim in a federal case be engaged in a specific federally protected activity. The law, named after Shepard and Byrd, also added crimes committed because of the victim's gender, disability or sexual orientation.
Some federal hate crime cases include:
• A Hasidic driver accidentally hit and killed a 7-year-old black boy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in August 1991, sparking rioting. A black man, Charles Price, egged on a crowd of onlookers to "get the Jews." The angry mob set upon another Hasidic Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum. He was stabbed by black teenager Lemrick Nelson. Nelson was acquitted in state court of second-degree murder charges. The federal government followed with civil rights charges against Nelson and Price. After their first federal convictions were overturned on appeal, Price pleaded guilty and Nelson was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
• Six Shenandoah Valley, Pa., high school football players headed home from a block party encountered Luis Ramirez, 25, and his girlfriend in July 2008. A fight ensued. Federal officials said the teens yelled racial epithets and "Go back to Mexico" as they beat Ramirez. He died of head injuries. Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak were acquitted of most charges in state court. The federal government stepped in, and Piekarsky and Donchak were convicted under a federal law prohibiting housing discrimination, because they were trying to force Latinos out of Shenandoah. Donchak also was convicted of conspiring with local police to cover up the crime. Both were sentenced to nine years in prison. The city's police chief was sentenced to 13 months in prison for the cover-up.