Talk Left blasts federal hate-crimes bill, warns against ‘punishing thought’

With the trial of a man accused of brutally slaying a transgender Greeley woman about to start, gay-rights and anti-violence groups are urging Congress to pass federal hate-crime legislation. But a Denver criminal defense attorney and progressive blogger says not so fast.

“Cooler heads are needed where our fundamental liberties are at stake,” Talk founder Jeralyn Merritt writes Monday:

Legislation expanding the current federal hate crime law, and the role of the federal government in prosecuting such crime, threatens to erode our cherished individual rights to free speech, thought and association, the right to privacy, and the right to Justice and Due Process of law (including fair trials and punishments).

The trial of Allen Andrade, who faces first-degree murder and state hate-crime charges in the murder of Angie Zapata, begins Tuesday in Greeley. It’s the first time in the nation that hate-crime charges have been brought against an accused killer of a transgender victim. A group of nonprofit organizations launched a publicity campaign last week to rally support for Zapata’s family and to urge Congress to pass the Matthew Shepard Act, which would add gender, sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate-crime law.

“Let us not enact laws out of grief and passion, or in response to a singular criminal event, however horrific it might be,” writes Merritt, an outspoken critic of government attempts to abridge civil liberties.

Every sexual assault felony in Colorado already carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. First degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. We also (hopefully not much longer) have the death penalty.

What more do people want? Life plus cancer? I’m sure they do, but I hope they don’t get their way.

Merritt argues against changing federal law because “hate crimes laws come dangerously close to punishing thought, and freedom of thought is the foundation for all other freedoms.” She says the Matthew Shepard Act, which includes provisions to allow federal authorities to intervene in local prosecutions, goes too far:

Change the civil laws if need be and make sure that police investigate and prosecutors charge crimes appropriately — with financial assistance from the feds if need be. But there’s no need for the Feds to get further involved in prosecuting state crimes and there’s no need for increased penalties, especially when they are based on one’s thought processes.

Merritt also points to a counter-argument in favor of federal hate-crime legislation, articulated by journalist and author David Neiwert at his Orcinus blog.

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