Sunday, June 15, 2008

Death and justice in South Carolina

A story out of South Carolina shows how far the US has to go before there really is equal justice under law.

On the evening of May 16, 2007, a young gay man, 20-year-old Sean Kennedy (pictured), was in the parking lot of a bar in Greenville, South Carolina, heading toward his car. Another car pulled up, and Stephen Moller, 18, jumped out, made remarks about Kennedy’s sexual orientation, punched him, then jumped in the car and drove off. Kennedy, meanwhile, fell to the ground and hit his head, suffering injuries from which he would die 20 hours later.

After interviewing witnesses and investigating the circumstances of the attack on Kennedy, the Sherriff’s department believed the crime was a hate crime, and provided the information to the FBI for possible prosecution (South Carolina has no hate crimes laws). Murder charges were prepared against Moller.

In October 2007, prosecutors reduced the charges against Moller from murder to involuntary manslaughter, which carries zero to five years imprisonment (murder carries a sentence of 30 years to life). Without hate crimes laws, they said, it was the best they could do. The prosecutor later joined the call for hate crimes laws in South Carolina.

The following month, Moller was released on $25,000 bond and ordered to home detention, meaning he could only go to work or church. In reporting the release, WYFF Greenville, whose website had previously carried balanced reports, for the first time referred to Kennedy as “an open homosexual.”

On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, Moller pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge. The judge sentenced Moller to five years in prison, suspended to three years and deducted seven months for the time Moller served awaiting trial. His attorney said he will probably serve about a year and a half. For killing someone.

By contrast, torturing and killing animals in South Carolina carries a sentence of up to five years, with typical sentences ranging from 180 days to five years. Moller will serve about 18 months for killing a gay man. Cockfighting in South Carolina is punishable with sentences ranging from one to three years and/or a $1,000 fine. But Moller kills a gay man and will serve 18 months. Apparently, animals have more worth more in South Carolina than a gay man.

Addressing the court at his sentencing, Moller said, “I wish that young people weren't allowed to be out late at night and the bars were not allowed to serve them alcohol. I think if that hadn't taken place, we wouldn't be here. We wouldn't be here today.” Kennedy’s family released a transcript of a phone call Moller made with anti-gay slurs as evidence of Moller’s anti-gay bias, including referring to Kennedy as “the fucking faggot”.

Despite the transcript, and despite witness statements attesting to Moller’s anti-gay slurs, Moller’s defense attorney, Ryan Beasley, said “After several months of investigating and getting statements from Sean's friends, there was no evidence whatsoever that there was any kind of hatred toward Sean Kennedy or hatred toward gays. I mean, Stephen had no idea he was gay until after the fact. It's just a freak incident that should never have happened.” In the rest of the world, “freak accidents” don’t involve one person jumping out of a car and deliberately punching someone.

The attorney also said, "In my opinion, I think [the sentence] is too much because he's a kid. And he punched somebody just like anybody else has punched somebody in a bar. It's always wrong and he does deserve to be punished. But I think it's just a freak incident that he died…” So hitting “the fucking faggot” is just what people do in South Carolina? “It doesn't matter how much time he [Moller] got,” Beasley went on. “He's going to be devastated by this for the rest of his life."

And Sean Kennedy is beyond “devasted”: He’s dead.

This story points out why hate crimes laws exist. They protect for innate characteristics, and they state clearly that singling someone out for hatred and violence based on those characteristics cannot be tolerated by a civilised society. They also provide some small measure of protection for the most vulnerable members of society.

When prosecutors reduced the charges against Moller, Kennedy’s mother said, “My son was violently murdered because of hate, and as his mother, I want justice.” In South Carolina, it seems, that was never a real possibility.

Photo of Sean Kennedy provided to WYFF by his friend, Matthew Wilbanks. I include it here so we can all see—and remember—what we lose because of hatred.


Fairy Princess Holly said...

That's horrible. It's just shocking.

Wes said...

It's not a freak accident, it's a deliberate assault. It's bewildering that we can call ourselves a civilized society.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yep, I completely agree with you both. While I think it's important to celebrate our successes in transforming America into a place that's more just, we have to be realistic about how far we have to go, and I think this story shows a bit of that.

I also think that "mainstream" America has to admit there's a real problem when people grow up thinking even for a split second that it's okay to hate GLBT people, much less commit an act of violence against them. There's a lot of healing to do.

Roger Owen Green said...

May I just say that this story REALLY PISSED ME OFF. Damn.

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: Yep, me, too. That's why I had to write it.