Angie Zapata murder – a brief overview of hate crimes legislation in the US

April 19, 2009

I’ve been trying to gain a better understanding of the status of hate crimes laws in the US and I hope this brief overview may be useful to others. It goes without saying that, although I’ve put this post together in good faith, I do not claim that it is definitive. I hope that it’s at least basically accurate, however if I’ve made any errors or omissions, please feel free to correct me in comments and I will amend the post accordingly.

As we know, the Angie Zapata murder trial marks the first time that hate crime charges have been included in the prosecution of a defendant accused of murdering a transgender victim.

To start with a more general definition of a hate crime (also known as a bias-motivated crime):

Defined in the 1999 National Crime Victim Survey, “A hate crime is a criminal offense. In the United States federal prosecution is possible for hate crimes committed on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion, or nation origin when engaging in a federally protected activity. Measures to add perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability to the list have been proposed, but failed.


There has been a federal hate crime law since 1969, however, as the above quote makes clear, its application is limited – “a federally protected activity” means things like voting, or going to school- and it excludes crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

In an attempt to close these legal loopholes, the Matthew Shepard Act (officially, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, or LLEHCPA) was put to, and passed by, the House of Representatives in 2007. Similar legislation was passed in the Senate in the same year but failed to proceed when President Bush indicated he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk.


The LLEHCPA has been introduced in substantially similar form in each Congress since the 105th Congress in 1999, but has never made it into law. The 2007 bill expands on the earlier versions (originally called the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act) by including transgender provisions and making it explicit that the law should not be interpreted to restrict people’s freedom of speech or association.


As regards the situation in Colorado:

In 1988, Colorado became the first state in the United States to have a hate crimes law. Although an important first step, “The Ethnic Intimidation Act” included limited protections. In 2005, the state legislature amended the law – renamed it a “Bias Motivated Crime” — and added sexual orientation and mental and physical disability as protections. The term “sexual orientation” is specifically defined in the law to include “transgender status.” Therefore, the law also provides protection for gender identity and expression.


The significance of this law in the Angie Zapata murder trial is that it’s the first time that Colorado’s gender identity-inclusive hate crimes statute – and in fact any state’s hate crimes law — has been applied in the investigation and prosecution of an anti-transgender murder case.


Cross-posted at Questioning Transphobia)


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One Response to “Angie Zapata murder – a brief overview of hate crimes legislation in the US”

  1. depresso Says:

    When Bush finally shuffles of this mortal coil, there’s a very good chance I’ll be there dancing on his grave. Along with several thousand others, no doubt!

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