Mike Massie, a former state legislator from Laramie, has some advice if lawmakers want to pass a hate crimes bill in Wyoming, one of five states without such laws in the country.
Build a coalition of churches, law enforcement and civil liberties groups. Avoid too much emotion, but explain the problem and how the bill offers a positive solution. Educate the public on how people become crime victims because of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation, said Massie, who co-sponsored a measure several times throughout the 1990s.
“My advice is to really demonstrate what the problem is here in Wyoming,” he said. “Make it Wyoming-specific. Talk in terms of how a bias crimes bill will help with that problem.”
Wyoming political observers discussed the likelihood of passing a hate or bias crimes bill in wake of the July 18 shooting at a detox center in Riverton in which Stallone Trosper, 29, died and James “Sonny” Goggles, 50, was injured. Both men were American Indians.
Supporters of hate crimes bills argue the crime is not just an act against a person but a message to the group to which they belong.
But opponents say there is no evidence the two men were targeted because of their race. Gov. Matt Mead and most of the Fremont County delegation have said if someone faces the death penalty or life imprisonment, additional penalties for a hate crime wouldn’t make a difference.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, opposed the measures in the 1990s when he was in the House and still does. He said it would be tough to pass a hate crimes bill today.
“I remember in the House when those came up, there wasn’t a lot of support,” he said. “I don’t think the issue has changed. I think the main reason those have a difficulty with support is they already feel the laws on the books are very strong. If you have first-degree murder, we deal with it very, very effectively in our state. We have tough laws.”
One of Wyoming’s earlier attempts at a hate crime bill was not actually a hate crime bill.
Massie said he and his legislative colleagues thought a bias crimes bill had a better chance of passing. The attempt came in the ’90s, when a Cheyenne synagogue was vandalized with a swastika and gay people experienced physical violence.
While a bias crime bill would enhance penalties for an existing crime, such as aggravated assault, against someone who is a member of a group, a hate crimes bill would create a separate charge that an offender would have to face in court, he said.
Some people oppose hate crimes because they think their constitutional rights such as free speech would be penalized. Bias penalties attached to existing crimes and were easier to argue, especially with limited time on the House and Senate floors.
The bill in the early and mid-1990s failed in legislative committees, he said.
Sponsors introduced the bill again in 1999 after the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, Massie said.
“We were coming fairly close in the previous years of getting it passed in the House,” he said. “I thought as a result of the statewide discussion on Matthew Shepard, it forced a lot of people throughout the state of Wyoming to examine their attitudes toward homosexuality.”
Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said the effort failed in the House with 30 representatives for it and 30 against. The next day, the bill was brought up for reconsideration but also failed 30-30.
“And that was the high-water mark for hate crime legislation in Wyoming,” Marsden said.
Some lawmakers told Massie they would have voted for it if sexual orientation wasn’t included as one of the groups.
“There was no way we were going to abandon a group that was in crisis,” he said.
Massie said many out-of-state organizations that supported the bias crimes law got involved, and their political tactics hurt the bill.
“Instead of coming in and working with the grassroots folks that had been working on that bill in Wyoming for a long period of time, they put out on the floor their own handouts,” he said. “They talked in emotional terms, likening opposition to it to maybe fascism … they made it rather personal. They began to attacking people’s beliefs.”
The Anti-Defamation League recently unveiled a campaign called 50 States Against Hate. It intends to pass hate crimes laws in Wyoming and the other four states without them and update laws in states that have laws without protections for gays and transgender people.
“We will be working in Wyoming with coalition partners to help pass a law in Wyoming,” said Jeremy Shaver, assistant director for the Anti-Defamation League region that includes the Cowboy State. “What that will look like and the time frame is to be determined because next year is a budget session and you have to clear certain hurdles. Certainly, in the next one to two years we would like to see something introduced.”
During the 2016 session, Wyoming lawmakers will pass a two-year budget in about four weeks. To ensure the focus is on the budget, the Legislature requires all bills receive a two-thirds vote to be introduced.
Marsden, of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said the fight in the 1990s was tough, and it will be tougher today.
“I think most political observers in Wyoming would agree with me the sitting Legislature we have now is considerably more conservative, more socially conservative, unfriendly to LGBT issues than anything in the last 20 years,” he said.
Ron Howard, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and chairman of the Fremont County Democratic Party, believes a hate crime law is necessary in Wyoming.
But any change may not come until another election cycle.
“I think we need more Democratic representation in the House who are going to look out for people on the reservation and the working class,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a lot of that.”
Massie said some of the opposition is simply because Wyomingites don’t like adding laws. The state has always had a libertarian streak, said the former Laramie legislator.
“Since Wyoming was a territory, there have been conservative, very conservative, down-to-earth people who care about people but they just don’t like to see new laws added to the books – especially criminal law,” he said.