A report from the Deaf Queer Resource Center ( www.deafqueer.org ) indicated that a murder in Waverly, Ohio, was being ignored, unlike the killing of Matthew Shepard, because the gay victim was a hearing-impaired, homeless man. The details of the murder were horrific: Daniel 'Dano' Fetty, 39 years old, had been living in his car after a fire, working at a local restaurant, and saving up for his next apartment.
On Oct. 2, 2004, Saturday, he was 'severely beaten with bricks, boards and bottles, stripped naked and dumped in a trash bin' and died 12 hours after the attack, according to a local TV station. I began to look for more details on the case, troubled by the suggestion that the crime against Fetty might be trivialized because of his poverty and disability. From major media outlets and GLBTQ accounts, I soon learned that the opposite was the case.
Not only did police in this small town 60 miles south of Columbus launch an immediate investigation of the murder, but the characterization of the killing was being used to seek the death penalty for the alleged assailants.
Police had acted very quickly, despite the fact that the victim of the crime was a gay, homeless man, and three men were arrested on Oct. 3. Mathew Ferman, 22, James Trent, 19, and Martin Baxter, 28, were arraigned in a Pike County courtroom the next day. They faced charges of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery, and each was held on $1 million bond. Within a week of the crime, Ferman and Baxter had been indicted by a grand jury on the aggravated murder charge, and Waverly police chief Larry Roe told reporters that Trent was discussing a possible plea deal with prosecutors and might testify against the two other men.
Even as their arrests were linked to these charges, Fetty's friends began to openly speculate that his sexual orientation was the reason for his murder. And almost as quickly, Gloria McCauley, executive director of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization ( BRAVO ) began to push for the murder to be declared a hate crime. Ohio has very serious penalties for homicide, including the death penalty, but the state has no enhanced punishment for bias-motivated killings.
So what's wrong with this picture? Given the prompt investigation and arrest by the police and serious charges brought by Pike County prosecutor Robert Junk, all the signs indicated this case was on track. If BRAVO had found that the crime was not being vigorously prosecuted because of Fetty's economic status, his sexual orientation, or his hearing impairment, their efforts to spotlight the case would have been laudable. But here, the alleged killers had already been indicted and charged with aggravated murder. What did the anti-violence organization hope to accomplish with their intervention?
One clue might be found in the Chillicothe Gazette's Oct. 14 report of the indictment. 'Since neither man was indicted on a charge of aggravated robbery they were originally charged with, Prosecutor Rob Junk said the death penalty is off the table for the time being.' But by Dec. 10, the same paper was reporting that Junk called the murder a hate crime and that Baxter and Ferman 'were reindicted Wednesday on six new charges, bringing the death penalty back into play.' It's not clear if the goal of BRAVO's insistence that Fetty's murder be labeled a hate crime was to have two men executed, but there is a very good chance that state-sanctioned killings will be the result of the organization's involvement in the case.
Ironically, the contrast between Fetty's murder and the Shepard case that sparked my interest in this story was finally established. But the difference was not that one case was ignored, while the other sparked widespread media coverage and concern about violence against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
When Shepard's alleged killers faced the death penalty, the activist group Queer Watch began a campaign to have LGBTQ organizations make public statements against capital punishment. Ultimately, at least a dozen groups, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and prominent anti-violence organizations, made historic statements condemning capital punishment. In the Fetty case, when the prosecutor reindicted Baxter and Ferman so the state could seek the death penalty, BRAVO remained silent. An anti-violence organization flexes its political muscle and now two men face capital charges. This is a horrible step backward.
There is a long, undeniable history of violence and persecution against members of the LGBTQ community. The Fetty case is a stark reminder of the danger of adopting the notion of 'hate crimes' as a means for dealing with such attacks. It encourages us to let their sensational and emotional impact distract us from justice: even those charged with heinous crimes are entitled to basic fairness, to due process. Ignoring the consequences of calling a killing a 'hate crime' makes us complicit in state-sanctioned murder. It suggests we give sweeping powers to police and prosecutors, and ignores the record of state violence against us. It allows us to forget that the death penalty has nothing to do with justice and only serves to exact vengeance.
Is this what equality means for us now? Are we now equally free to demand that others be put to death in our name? Let's hope that we did learn something from the Shepard case. As these cases head for trial, we must all speak out against capital punishment.
McCauley has justified her organization's silence about the death penalty on the grounds that BRAVO serves as an advocate for victims' families, but the silence served as a green light for the prosecutor to push for death.
We should seize this opportunity and encourage BRAVO to condemn capital punishment. If Baxter and Ferman are sentenced to death, we will have to live with three murders, not one.
Nair is a Chicago-based activist working on queer and progressive issues.