Assault on gays not a hate crime under Pa. law

City councilman asks for federal investigation

Screen grab from video of suspects in assault on two gay men in Center City.

Many people have called last week's brutal attack on two gay men in Center City a hate crime, but it can't be prosecuted as one under Pennsylvania law.

That gap in Pennsylvania's ethnic intimidation statute -- the law used to prosecute hate crimes -- has prompted calls for changes to the law and a federal hate-crime investigation.

Pennsylvania law defines ethnic-intimidation offenses as crimes motivated by "malicious intention toward the race, color, religion or national origin" of a person or group.

That means attacks based on sexual orientation aren't considered hate crimes.

Philadelphia City Councilman Jim Kenney sent a letter today to Zane Memeger, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asking for Memeger's office to look into the case and bring charges under the federal hate crimes statute, which includes offenses motivated by bias toward the victim's sexual orientation.

"Because of the seriousness of these offenses, and the obvious discriminatory intent of the perpetrators, I respectfully ask that the Department of Justice partner with the Philadelphia District Attorney and Philadelphia Police Department to conduct an investigation and bring Federal charges against these individuals," the letter says.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said the office was aware of the case and had received the letter.

Last Thursday, the two men, ages 28 and 27, were walking on the 1600 block of Chancellor Street near Rittenhouse Square when they were approached by a group of young men and women. The group of twentysomethings made disparaging comments about the pair's sexual orientation, according to police, and a fight broke out. The two men were badly beaten.

Kenney's letter comes after Philadelphia prosecutors said state law wouldn't permit hate-crime charges in the case.

"The current law for ethnic intimidation, a/k/a a 'hate crime,' in the commonwealth states: 'In order for ethnic intimidation to be charged, the malicious intention toward the religion, ethnicity or race of the victim must be the motive for the commission of the underlying crime,'" Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, told the Daily News' Helen Ubiñas. "So, no, we would not be able to charge with ethnic intimidation in this case."

The victims have described the attack as a hate crime, and a police department release and surveillance video are titled "Wanted: Suspects for Hate Crime/Assault and Robbery."

Pennsylvania law was amended in 2002 to include sexual orientation (as well as gender identity and physical or mental disability) in the ethnic-intimidation statute, but the state Supreme Court struck down the expansion in 2008 on procedural grounds.

The court said legislators had unlawfully inserted the hate-crime amendment into an unrelated bill regarding agricultural terrorism.

Bills are now pending in the state House and Senate to re-expand the law, but no action has been taken on the measures.

In addition to the request for a federal probe, the incident has sparked calls for changes to Pennsylvania's law.

"Imagine being a gay teen in a small town somewhere in the state hearing this news," Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, told Philadelphia Weekly. "If this can happen in Philadelphia, what kind of things can happen where they live, and who would come to their defense if it did? The psychological effects and social intimidation that hate crimes cause are exactly why we need hate crimes legislation."

A friend of the victims has started a Change.org petition to push for a change in the law.

"This gap in legislative protection is a gross failure to protect and serve people like my friends who were savagely attacked PRIMARILY FOR THEIR SEXUAL ORIENTATION," the petition says.

State Rep. Brendan Boyle, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, told CBS3 about the measure he introduced last year: "My effort, my bill would simply add sexual orientation to our already existing hate crime law."

Police are questioning people of interest in connection with last week's attack, and an assistant basketball coach at Archbishop Wood High School has been fired over his alleged involvement.


Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or ebabay@philly.com. Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443 or BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.