We remember Matthew Shepard, Sharon Tate and others who inspired legislation after their deaths.
By: Linnea Crowther
1 year ago
When Matthew Shepard was killed in 1998, his murder had all the characteristics of a hate crime. Targeted for his homosexuality, he was beaten brutally and left for dead on a Wyoming roadside. He died of his grave injuries days later without ever regaining consciousness. His attackers were easily discovered and brought to trial. But as the 21-year-old college student's loved ones sought justice for his murder, they learned that it wasn't considered a hate crime, because homosexuality wasn't covered in hate crimes legislation, either in Wyoming or federally.
That same year, the family of James Byrd Jr. faced the same obstacle when the 49-year-old African-American man was brutally killed in a racist attack. His home state of Texas had no hate crimes legislation at all.
Two years later, the two men posthumously gave their names to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It expanded the definition of a federal hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The act also removed other barriers to investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. Shepard and Byrd live on in this important legislation, and though their families would certainly rather still have them alive today, the justice they inspired provides an enduring legacy.
Others who died too soon also inspired groundbreaking legislation, on both the state and federal levels. In honor of Matthew Shepard's birthday, we're remembering a few who, like him, suffered untimely deaths that led to greater justice.
Sharon Tate: Tate's 1969 murder by members of Charles Manson's "Manson Family" was incredibly high-profile, given her celebrity status as a promising starlet married to the successful director Roman Polanski. With the legislation she inspired, her death became more than a fascinating news item – it caused real change. It started when, several years after Tate's death, Mason Family member Leslie Van Houten became eligible for parole – and hundreds signed a petition supporting her release. When Tate's mother, Doris, found out about this, she mounted her own petition, collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures against Van Houten's release. Van Houten was denied parole – and she's remained in prison to this day, thanks in part to Doris Tate's perseverance. She lobbied for the rights of victims – and the loved ones who survived murder victims – to make a statement during a sentencing or parole hearing. These victim impact statements ensure that those who were wronged are always at the forefront of the court's decision-making. In 1982, California – Tate's home state – became the first of the United States to pass a law allowing victim impact statements.
Cari Lightner: Lightner was just 13 when, in 1980, she was struck and killed by a hit-and-run drunken driver. The man who killed her got off relatively easily, with just a DWI charge. Lightner's mother, Candy, was infuriated – and her anger prompted her to form MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Lightner found many others who were outraged by the lack of attention paid by lawmakers to drunken driving at the time, and a movement grew. The strong support for MADD caught plenty of eyes, and many new laws followed, including a groundbreaking law passed by Congress in 1982 awarding federal highway funds to states that mounted anti-drunken driving efforts. New laws were passed all over the country, and federal law followed when, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Uniform Drinking Age Act into law, strongly encouraging states to require a minimum drinking age of 21.
Tony Borcia: Cars aren't the only vehicles that are dangerous to operate under the influence, but we don't always remember the importance of careful driving on the water. Indeed, boating with a beer in hand is practically a national pastime, and in many areas, there's no prohibition against it. That changed after the 2012 death of 10-year-old Tony Borcia, who was swimming when he was struck and killed by a boater who was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. His aunt, Illinois State Rep. Julie Morrison, introduced a bill into the Illinois Legislature that would hold boaters subject to the same alcohol regulations and testing as drivers.
Michael Bell Jr.: Bell was killed by police outside his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2004. The officer who shot him claimed he thought Bell was reaching for the officer's gun, but detailed investigation showed no proof of that – the gun was probably bumped by the car mirror. That detailed investigation wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of Bell's father, who launched a campaign for police accountability that centered on requiring outside review of any death in police custody. There was previously no law requiring that, and those deaths were reviewed by the very police forces that caused them. Having an outside review team allows for impartiality that the police force just can't offer, and when, in 2014, Wisconsin passed the first law in the U.S. to require that outside review, it promised survivors a thorough investigation of their loved one's death.
Brittany Maynard: Maynard was just 29 when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. It spread quickly, and within a few months she was given a dire prognosis: six months to live, with her physical and mental capabilities degrading sharply in her last months. Knowing she would soon die, she wanted to control the circumstances of her death and die with dignity. Her home state of California lacked legislation such as Oregon's Death with Dignity Law, which deems physician-assisted suicide legal, so she and her husband moved to Oregon in the months before her death. While there, she began campaigning for right-to-die laws, bringing her case to national attention when she did a much-read interview with People magazine. She took her own life Nov. 1, 2014, and her husband continued her fight after her death. Less than a year after Maynard's death, California passed its End of Life Option Act, legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
Originally published December 2015