Attorney General

Under Sessions' Department of Justice, LGBT community worries about hate crime prosecutions

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LGBT Gavel

LGBT rights activists fear a possible slowing down or end to federal prosecutions for hate crimes against members of the community under the Trump administration, and they say the 2009 hate crime law already had not been used often enough, the Associated Press reports.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposed the law’s enactment in 2009 when he was in the U.S. Senate, saying it was unnecessary to provide additional protections beyond other laws. Asked about that in his confirmation hearings in January, Sessions told the senators on the panel that they “can be sure” he will enforce the law.

But doesn’t assuage the fears of those it was designed to protect. In February, at the insistence of Sessions, the Trump administration rescinded a directive issued by the prior administration that told public schools to let transgender students choose which locker rooms and bathrooms match their gender identification, the ABA Journal reported.

“We really might be looking at a new day under Sessions, and that has huge implications for how the federal government is going to treat violence that is absolutely rampant in the transgender community,” said Jordan Woods, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law and an expert on LGBT legal issues, discussing prosecution of federal hate crimes.

In December, a high-ranking member of a Mississippi gang called the Latin Kings became the first person convicted under the statute for murdering a transgender person, entering a guilty plea, the Sun Herald reported.

Sentencing in the Mississippi case of Josh Vallum is set for May, according to the AP. The AP reports that the Sessions Department of Justice likely won’t change its strategy in that case. Vallum earlier pleaded guilty to murder in state court and is serving life in prison. He later pleaded guilty to the federal hate crime to spare members of his gang from further problems in the matter.

LGBT rights advocates had been waiting for years for such a prosecution, as transgender people have been increasingly targeted in violent crimes.

“We waited for many years for the government to finally deploy that law,” said Dru Levasseur, a lawyer with the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal.

The 2009 statute had been used relatively sparingly by the Obama administration, dispelling initial fears that it would be overused. Only 47 people have been prosecuted under the federal law, and 37 were convicted, the AP found, using data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Referrals for prosecution against 300 others did not lead to charges. In at least half of those, cases the investigations found too little evidence or no proof of intent.

Vallum admitted that he killed his ex-girlfriend, so others would not learn that she was transgender.

“This law is meant to send the message back that these lives matter,” Levasseur said.

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