Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood before a room filled with some of his harshest critics Thursday morning and vowed to “aggressively” investigate and prosecute hate crimes — particularly crimes against gay and transgender people.
In the nearly five months since Sessions was sworn in, the Department of Justice has filed charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act three times. His predecessor, Loretta Lynch, filed charges under the same statute four times during her first six months on the job. (Sessions inherited four other hate crime cases from the Obama administration and has overseen sentencing in three of them.)
Most experts and civil rights advocates say it’s premature to assess Sessions’ record on hate crimes, but many of those in the room Thursday at the DOJ’s hate crimes summit in Washington had made no secret of their disapproval in November when then–President-elect Donald Trump said he would nominate Sessions for attorney general.
As Alabama attorney general and then a U.S. senator, Sessions had a questionable civil rights record and fought the passage of the 2009 Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded existing federal hate crime laws to protect gay and transgender Americans.
Sessions had invited many of his critics to the summit in an apparent attempt to address suspicions that he would not enforce hate crime laws.
“We have a responsibility to protect people’s freedom, their religious rights, their integrity, their ability to express themselves, to push back against violence and hate crimes that occur in our country,” Sessions said, later adding, “We have and will continue to enforce hate crime laws aggressively and appropriately where transgender individuals are victims.”
When a Mississippi man was sentenced in May to 49 years in prison for murdering a transgender woman — the first ever anti-transgender hate crime prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard Act — Sessions praised the outcome, vowing that his DOJ would “continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias-motivated crimes.”
On Thursday, Sessions pointed to that case as evidence of the work his DOJ had done so far and noted the recent “spate of murders around the country of transgender individuals.”
A DOJ spokesperson said in a statement to VICE News that Sessions has directed the Civil Rights Division to form a working group to assist local law enforcement in investigating hate crimes against transgender Americans. Also Thursday, the Trump administration announced it had picked Eric Dreiband, a private corporate lawyer, to head the Civil Rights Division.
But civil rights advocates remain skeptical. Brian Levin, a hate crimes expert and professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who attended Thursday’s summit, said the vibe there was “cautious.”
“Gender hate crimes in [Sessions’] speech, that’s an important step,” Levin said. “But beyond words, we need actions.”
These are the three cases in which the DOJ has filed charges under the Matthew Shepard Act during Sessions’ tenure (other federal hate crime laws prevent against non-violent hate crimes like housing discrimination and destruction of religious property):
1. USA v. Shelton
On March 8, federal prosecutors filed charges against four people accused of conspiring together to commit hate crimes against gay men in Texas in January and February. The four men used Grindr, a gay dating app, to set up dates with men. The group then broke into the homes of four men armed with guns before torturing them and stealing their property, including their cars.
The four defendants are being charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, carjacking, possession of a firearm, and hate crimes under the Matthew Shepard Act because prosecutors believed they targeted the victims due to their sexual orientation.
2. US v. Burgess
On March 14, federal prosecutors brought hate crime charges against a Pennsylvania man who allegedly verbally abused and assaulted someone he believed to be Muslim at a Red Robin restaurant in 2016. Jeffrey Burgess was charged in a one-count indictment and is accused of violating the Matthew Shepard Act by “willfully causing bodily injury” to the victim because of his “perceived race, color, and national origin.” If convicted, Burgess faces up to 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both.
3. USA v. Purinton
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed hate crime charges against 52-year-old Adam Purinton, who’s accused of shooting two Indian nationals at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, in February. One of the men was killed and the other survived; a third bar patron who tried to intervene was wounded.
Witnesses said Purinton shouted racial slurs at the victims and told them to “get out of my country.” He was indicted on hate crime charges for allegedly wanting to kill the men because of their national origin.
Looming large over Thursday’s summit was a federal report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics stating that the total number of hate crimes in the U.S. each year is probably underestimated. About 250,000 are said to take place annually, but based on a household survey, the bureau found that more than half of hate crimes between 2011 and 2015 went unreported.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says he is anticipating an increase in federal hate crime prosecutions under Sessions relative to the recent surge in hate crimes observed by civil rights groups and law enforcement.
“Trump has exacerbated wounds along the lines of race, ethnicity, and the like — those are the fault lines of hate crimes,” Cohen said. “I take Sessions’ word that he will vigorously prosecute those crimes.”