Remembering Victims of Hate Crimes

Chances are, you heard what happened in 1998 to James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard. The two men's murders put hate crimes in national headlines and on the nightly news — but only for a time.

Chances are, you didn't hear what happened in 2001 to Robert Spencer and Fred Martinez Jr. Spencer, a father of eight, was carrying a sandwich out of a convenience store in Lake County, Fla., when he was gunned down by a man who had vowed to "take out" as many black people as he could. He died minutes later in the arms of his son.

Martinez, a 16-year-old Navajo who believed he had the spirit of a female inside him, was allegedly beaten with a boulder and left to die by an 18-year-old who later boasted that he had "bug-smashed a joto" — derogatory Spanish slang for homosexual. His badly decomposed body was found five days later.

Like Byrd and Shepard, Spencer and Martinez were killed for one reason: they were members of groups that some people despise. But as with most hate murders, no matter how horrific, neither of these tragedies became a national cause célèbre.

Still, such horror stories happen, year after year, with unsettling regularity.

The Intelligence Report has identified 21 victims of apparent hate murders in the United States in 2001. They ranged in age from 16 to 76. They were slain in 12 states, with four victims each in California and Florida.

Six of the victims were perceived as being from the same ethnic or religious group as the Sept. 11 terrorists; 11 were either gay, transgender or perceived as such; one was black; one was Hispanic; two were Asian-American.

The Intelligence Report went beyond official reports to compile its 2001 list. Researchers checked local newspaper accounts and law-enforcement reports. They interviewed investigators and human rights activists, along with friends and families of victims. Even so, the count is surely incomplete.

As reported in the Winter 2001 issue of the Intelligence Report, the national effort to document hate crimes has been a failure since data collection began in 1991.

The system is hobbled by the voluntary nature of reporting, errors made by reporting departments and states, misunderstanding of what constitutes a hate crime, falsified data, and the reluctance of victims to report hate crimes to the authorities.

As a result, fewer than one-sixth of U.S. hate crimes are reported to the FBI.

There is another reason why some hate murders go unrecognized. Hate-crime cases are hard to solve — so hard that at press time, no arrests had been made in almost half of the murders documented in the following pages.

When the motive is hate, the perpetrators are often complete strangers to their victims — and that makes them particularly difficult to track down. Even when arrests are made, the hate motive can be difficult to prove.

Sometimes, law-enforcement agencies shy away from classifying homicides as acts of hate because such cases may throw a poor light on the communities in which they happen. They "look bad."

So if a case is questionable, law enforcement agencies may prefer to classify the vicious killing of someone in a sexual, racial or religious group as a robbery — or, if nothing was taken from the victim, as an attempted robbery.

But the reality, especially when the victim is gay, is that extreme violence is often a telltale sign of a hate crime.

What's not so hard to determine is the devastating effect these killings can have.

Like all hate crimes, they send a message: Merely by virtue of being in a particular racial, religious or sexual preference group — or if someone thinks you "look like one" — you could be the next target, the next Robert Spencer or Fred Martinez Jr.

Why is it important to tell these stories? Ask Beulah Spencer, who was shocked not only by her father's murder, but also by how little attention it generated. "People need to know that these things still happen," she said. "You might not think it, but it's out there."