|The Case Which Changed His Life|
|Written by APB Staff|
Frequently people associate bravery with spectacular acts of heroism.
But there is another kind of courage - one sorely lacking in American life these days. That's the courage required to look deep into ourselves and ask hard questions about how we were raised and what we believe.
A sterling example of this kind of bravery was exhibited recently by David O'Malley, the former police chief of Laramie, Wyoming. He's broad-shouldered, square-jawed, and all cop.
He doesn't look like the type to be concerned with something like hate crimes.
And O'Malley is brutally honest about the fact that prior to 1998, he didn't consider hate crimes to be something to worry about. In 1998, "I was fully homophobic," he said. "Mean-spirited. ‘Faggot' came out of my mouth as easily as ‘I love you' to my children," O'Malley told those in attendance at the recent conference.
But that was before the Matthew Shepard case.
O'Malley's description of Shepard's death, and of his own transformation, set the tone for a civil-rights conference, hosted by the local FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The annual hate crimes conference attracted about 250 local and state law enforcement officers to the Breen Center for the Performing Arts at St. Ignatius High School.
Shepard's murder and the 1998 hate crime murder of James Byrd Jr. in Texas led to the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The federal legislation toughened civil rights laws and extended hate crime protections to people targeted because of sexual orientation.
"Why is this legislation important?" O'Malley asked. "Because there are places in our country where, if you're queer, you ‘deserve what you get.' If you happen to be gay, we may not investigate as well. We may not prosecute. I'm hoping that stops."
That hope was born in October 1998, days after a 21-year-old college student was found beaten unrecognizable and lashed to a prairie fence three miles outside of Laramie, home to the University of Wyoming. Five days later Shepard was dead.
O'Malley, now sheriff of Albany County but then a Laramie detective, led a homicide investigation that resulted in convictions and life sentences for two local men suspected of targeting Shepard because he was gay.
O'Malley told those in attendance that he learned more than the heinous details of the crime, "injuries like I had never seen before."
He learned how much Shepard was loved by friends, family and his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who had to envision the unthinkable.
Shepard had been tied to the fence so tightly that that the first sheriff's deputy on the scene could not get a knife between the ropes and his flesh.
O'Malley says he still thinks of the Shepards when he hugs his own son, knowing they can never do the same. "And that gives me a real intense feeling of loss."
The auditorium was dead silent. Police officers, FBI agents and prosecuting attorneys hung on his every word.
After O'Malley had finished, several attendees told reporters from the Plain Dealer newspaper that O'Malley's speech was critically important.
"Hate crime is a difficult topic for some people to engage in," Dan Leeper, a supervising special agent for the Cleveland FBI told reporters. "But when a law enforcement veteran like that, someone everyone respects, presents that message, I'm sure it's being well-received."
Bay Village Police Chief David Wright agreed.
"A criminal event affects the soul of the community," Wright told reporters. "It's true. Everything he said was true."