Swastika-Shaving Case To Be First Test Of New Hate Crimes Law Named For Matthew Shepard
FARMINGTON, N.M. — Three friends had just finished their shifts at a McDonald's when prosecutors say they carried out a gruesome attack on a customer: They shaped a coat hanger into a swastika, placed it on a heated stove and branded the symbol on the arm of the mentally disabled Navajo man. Authorities say they then shaved a swastika on the back of the 22-year-old victim's head and used markers to scrawl messages and images on his body, including "KKK," `'White Power," a pentagram and a graphic image of a penis.
The men have become the first in the nation to be charged under a new law that makes it easier for the federal government to prosecute people for hate crimes. The case also marked the latest troubling race-related attack in this New Mexico community, prompting a renewed focus among local leaders on improving relations between Navajos and whites. The defendants are accused of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and could face 10 years in prison if convicted. The sentences could be extended to life if the government proves kidnapping occurred.
Federal prosecutors say they were able to bring the case because the 2009 law eliminated a requirement that a victim must be engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or attending school, for hate crime charges to be leveled. The law also expanded civil rights protections to include violence that is based on gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. The swastika branding has also put the spotlight back on Farmington, a predominantly white community of about 45,000 residents near the Navajo Nation.