After attack on couple, calls for Pa. hate-crime law change

Councilman Jim Kenney

As investigators interviewed more witnesses and reviewed additional video footage of a Center City assault that sent a gay couple to the hospital last week, calls began anew for Pennsylvania to expand its hate-crimes law.

A law enforcement source said that police were still taking statements from men and women involved in the Sept. 11 incident near Rittenhouse Square. The couple and police have said members of a group of 10 to 12 people hurled antigay slurs, held and punched the couple, and beat one man so severely he had to undergo surgery and have his jaw wired shut.

A second law enforcement source said Thursday that detectives had interviewed several people who say the incident was a fight that developed after both groups exchanged angry words.

"We are continuing our interviews, trying to be as thorough as possible on exactly what took place," the first source said. "We are trying to find out who participated in the actual attack, and who stood by, and who was merely a witness."

No arrests have been made, and the investigation, one of the sources said, could stretch into the weekend.

Meanwhile, City Councilman James Kenney called for the federal government to investigate and charge with a hate crime anyone arrested in the attack. Crimes based on sexual orientation are not covered under hate-crime laws in Pennsylvania, but they are covered under federal law.

Kenney called the incident "a violent and vicious attack on two human beings because they are gay."

"It's a crime of violent bias that calls for the full weight of federal prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice," he said in a statement.

Caryn Kunkle, a friend of the victims, said the men were recovering and were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community, including efforts on Twitter to send tips to police. "They're just very touched by the positivity," she said.

Kunkle said she believed it was clear that the attack was motivated by the fact that her friends are gay.

The victims have told reporters that one of them bumped into a member of the larger group, which resulted in another member of that group's asking whether the two were dating, followed by the attack.

During the assault, one of the men dropped his bag, containing his cellphone and wallet with credit cards, police said. When officers approached, a member of the larger group grabbed the bag and fled with the others, police said.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that does not include crimes motivated by sexual orientation in its hate-crimes law, an absence that Kenney commented on in his request for the U.S. Attorney's Office to press federal charges.

Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, said the office was "aware of the matter," but declined to comment further.

Federal hate-crimes laws were amended in 2009 - through the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act - to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Shepard, a gay man from Laramie, Wyo., was killed in 1998 by two men who tied him to a fence and beat him into a coma. He died six days later. His killers were not charged with a hate crime; at the time, federal hate-crimes law did not include provisions for crimes based on sexual orientation.

Byrd, a black man in Jasper, Texas, was killed in 1998 after three men beat him and dragged him behind a pickup truck for more than two miles. Two of the men convicted in his death were members of a white supremacist group.

But the federal law that applies to hate crimes involving sexual orientation and gender identity says charges can be filed only when the crimes affect interstate or foreign commerce, or occur on federally owned or protected property. This would appear to preclude the U.S. Attorney General's Office's taking action in the Center City case, but whether the federal government can do so hasn't been settled.

Since the federal law was passed in 2009, the U.S Attorney's Office in Philadelphia has not charged anyone with a hate crime based on sexual orientation, Hartman said.

From 2002 to 2008, Pennsylvania's hate-crimes law did include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disabilities.

But that law was repealed after Commonwealth Court ruled that it was unconstitutional - not on its merits, but because legislators had not followed the correct procedure in submitting it.

State Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, has submitted bills that would add provisions for sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disabilities twice before - in 2011 and 2013. Each time, the bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee and no further action was taken.

"Perhaps now with this ugly incident, it will, frankly, embarrass those legislators who are against it - it will embarrass them enough to finally move on this and schedule it for a vote," Boyle said.

Nurit Shein, CEO of the Mazzoni Center, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender wellness center in Philadelphia, said she hoped the incident would "galvanize people to work together and help create a change."

She called the incident "inexcusable."

She said that the Mazzoni Center often treats patients who say they have been victims of antigay violence, and that many do not report it to police out of fear. "The impact of this stress, this feeling like victims - it's really the mental health, the physical health, the whole well-being of individuals," she said. "We see how they are compromised because of this."

Kunkle has started a petition calling for Pennsylvania to include crimes motivated by victims' sexual orientation in its hate-crime laws.

Her friends, she said, "have said over and over that they don't want this to happen to anybody ever again."

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan