U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has pledged to enforce the hate crimes law for transgender murders. Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key

Sessions to Enforce Hate Crimes Law 'Aggressively' for Trans Murders

BY CHRIS JOHNSON, WASHINGTON BLADE

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- criticized for his long anti-LGBT record -- pledged June 29 to enforce the federal hate crimes law "aggressively and appropriately" in cases of ongoing transgender murders.

Sessions made the remarks at a hate crimes summit held at the Justice Department, saying the Trump administration is committed to reducing violent crimes and "hate crimes are violent crimes."

"No person should have to fear being violently attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship," Sessions said. "So I pledge to you: As long as I am attorney general, the Department of Justice will continue to protect the civil rights of all Americans -- and we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in our country."

Sessions ticked off a few Justice Department ongoing investigations under the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act - a measure he opposed as a U.S. senator before former President Obama signed it into law in 2009.

Commending the work of FBI and international partners, Sessions said a suspect was found and arrested in Israel for allegedly making threatening phone calls to Jewish community centers. The Justice Department, Sessions said, brought federal charges against him and continues an investigation into whether the acts are hate crimes.

In response to potential anti-Islamic hate crimes, Sessions recalled seeking an indictment of a Texas man who now faces 40 years in prison for burglary and arson of the Victoria Islamic Center; a man sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for trying to recruit people to help him burn down a mosque in New York State; and the indictment of Kansas man for shooting three men at a bar because he thought they were of Persian origin.

But Sessions also made a point to commit to enforcing hate crimes law when it comes to violence against transgender people, pointing to the first-ever prosecution of an anti-transgender hate crime under the Matthew Shepard & Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which recently resulted in a conviction under the law.

"We have and will continue to enforce hate crime laws aggressively and appropriately where transgendered individuals are victims," Sessions said. "Last month, Joshua Brandon Vallum was sentenced to 49 years in prison for assaulting and murdering Mercedes Williamson. This is the first case prosecuted under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act involving the murder of a transgender person."

Amid ongoing reports of transgender murders throughout the country, Sessions said he personally met with the department's senior leadership and the Civil Rights Division on the issue. According to the Human Rights Campaign, those murders have reached a tally of 14 only halfway through 2017.

Sessions said he directed the Civil Rights Division to work with U.S. attorneys' offices and the FBI to "support the state and local law enforcement authorities investigating these incidents and to determine whether federal action would be appropriate."

Further, Sessions said he directed the review of files "to ensure that there is no single person or group behind these murders or to what extent hate crime motivation lies behind such murders." Sessions said he receives regular updates on these reviews.

The attorney general's remarks come after LGBT rights supporters sought to derail his nomination unsuccessfully based on his anti-LGBT record as a U.S. senator, which includes votes against the hate crimes law, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as well as support for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Upon confirmation as attorney general, Sessions revoked Obama-era guidance instructing schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. Sessions said the law on which the guidance was based, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, doesn't make that a requirement -- despite numerous court rulings that have determined otherwise.

Emily Waters, senior manager of national research and policy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said Sessions' speech doesn't make up for his other actions at the Justice Department.

"We won't allow Jeff Sessions to use the violence perpetrated against LGBTQ people, and particularly the homicides of transgender women of color, to push forward a pro-policing agenda that does not acknowledge, recognize or protect LGBTQ people of color who are victims of police violence and brutality," Waters said. "This is very clearly a tool to get more money for policing, and has nothing to do with actual hate crime prevention. If Jeff Sessions truly cares about LGBTQ people, then he would be diverting resources into the communities most impacted to address the real root causes of violence."

On the same day Sessions delivered the remarks, the White House announced President Trump nominated Eric Dreiband, a former George W. Bush administration official, to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Civil rights groups declared opposition to the nominee upon the announcement.

Vanita Gupta, who ran the division under the Obama administration and is now CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, said Dreiband is "woefully unqualified" for the job.

"Drieband has devoted the vast majority of his career to defending corporations accused of employment discrimination." Gupta said. "He has opposed important legislation to safeguard our civil rights. And he has no known experience in most of the Civil Rights Division's core issue areas, such as voting rights, police reform, housing, education, and hate crimes. He is the wrong person for the job."

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Gay Media Association.
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