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May 20, 2011

Rock Hill mob attack fuels new hate crime bill

Gay advocacy groups joined the man who says he was beaten at a Rock Hill gas station last month because he is gay in cheering for a hate crime bill introduced in the S.C. House on Thursday.

Gay advocacy groups joined the man who says he was beaten at a Rock Hill gas station last month because he is gay in cheering for a hate crime bill introduced in the S.C. House on Thursday.

South Carolina is one of the few states that has no hate crime laws, but the bill, sponsored by state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, would make anyone with "the intent to assault, intimidate or threaten a person" due to "race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin or sexual orientation" guilty of a felony.

Such a felony could carry a punishment of two to 15 years in prison.

A similar bill gained no co-sponsors last year and failed.

After Thursday's introduction, King said the bill had support throughout the state and several of his colleagues in the House, including Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

"It's time for South Carolina to stop being the last in the nation to adapt to certain things that are affecting people in our community," King said Thursday.

"I think this is something that needs to be addressed."

The bill will go to the House Judiciary Committee before being voted on. If the vote is favorable, the bill would go to the full House floor for debate.

However, King said it could be January before that debate happens.

The bill's reintroduction was prompted by an incident last month, in which 20-year-old Josh Esskew was beaten by at least eight men at a Cherry Road convenience store after he was hit in the head with a beer bottle. Esskew told authorities that one of the men used a gay slur before the attack.

An investigation led to the arrest of five men. The FBI said last month it was investigating the case as a potential hate crime.

An FBI official said Thursday it had no comment regarding the matter, but Esskew is ecstatic about the hate crime bill's introduction.

"I feel like that is necessary to be in place for protection for anyone who is discriminated against," he said. "I'm really hoping it will go through."

The fact that the bill has been introduced is exciting, he said.

"[The violence] will still be out there, but it'll help put a damper on it, and any way to help to stop it is a good thing," Esskew said.

Victoria Middleton, executive director for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is important that sexual orientation be included in the protected categories.

"This represents a step forward for civil liberties for all people in South Carolina," she said. "We're still studying the details of the proposed legislation and will monitor its progress."

Christine Johnson, executive director with South Carolina Equality, said the state's General Assembly has a "brilliant opportunity to make a clear and unequivocal statement" that the state's residents are protected as they are in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

"Rejection of a statewide hate crimes bill, when other similarly conservative states have passed such legislation, would do nothing more than speak an endorsement of bias and hate-based crimes," she said in a statement.

"We'd like to thank Rep. King and the co-sponsors for stepping up and taking a stance against hate in the community and being an inspiration to the people of South Carolina, even the nation, because the nation is watching," said Scott Hall, director of the Florida-based Gay American Heroes.

However, Hall did express disappointment that the federal hate crime designation from the 19-month-old Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act had not been applied to Esskew's case or others.

Hall said he hoped the FBI would determine the attack on Esskew was a hate crime.

"For the federal government not to charge it, they're doing an injustice, and it makes the hate crime laws we've passed irrelevant," he said.

Hall, however, said he is happy to see people who are "teaching hate" being addressed by such legislation.

"The diversity of our country is great, and the diversity of our community is great," he said. "Gay people are part of the fabric of America."

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