For 17 hours, Elke Kennedy waited for the test results to come back. Only then would she know if what the staff at Greenville Memorial Hospital's Neuro-Intensive Care Unit had suspected was true — her 20-year-old son Sean had suffered a fatal head injury. Only after hours had passed did Kennedy learn that her son was indeed brain dead.
"My world fell apart," Kennedy says. "I wanted to take my son's place."
Since that day, May 16, Kennedy has been waiting for the man who allegedly murdered her openly gay son Sean to be tried and convicted. On the night of the alleged attack, Stephen Andrew Moller reportedly made anti-gay comments about Sean before delivering the blow that led to his death. When Sean hit the ground, his brain separated from his brain stem.
And although the day has yet to come for Moller to face a jury, Kennedy has already learned that justice, as she sees it, will never be served.
Last week, the charges against Moller were reduced from murder to involuntary manslaughter. While a murder conviction could send Moller away for life, a manslaughter conviction would put the alleged attacker in prison for no more than five years.
According to 13th Circuit Solicitor Bob Ariail, the charges were being reduced because it was unlikely that Moller would be found guilty of murder. In order for a successful murder conviction, prosecutors would have to prove that the assailant acted with "malicious intent" —a Greenville County grand jury previously determined he did not — when he struck Sean Kennedy outside of a local bar.
For Elke Kennedy, who has since become one of the state's most noted advocates for hate crime legislation, May 16 was the "start of a nightmare," one she says, "I'm still living."
For many, Sean's death and the apparent inability of prosecutors to try Moller on charges that more accurately take into account his possible motivations, the state of South Carolina needs to pass a hate crime bill. As of today there is no hate crime law in the Palmetto State, something 46 states have. A pair of Statehouse bills introduced in the spring, one by Rep. Seth Whipper to the House, the other by Sen. Robert Ford to the Senate, would create penalties for crimes where prejudice against a person's race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, or sexual identity was a motivating factor.
According to Michael Schwarzott, a board member with the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), hate crime legislation does not create special laws for special groups. He says that while every crime can be considered a hate crime, when a criminal commits a crime like a robbery, it's not because of the racial, religious, sexual, or ethnic background of the victim, generally speaking. Typically crime is motivated by other factors, like drug addiction or poverty.
However, Schwarzott says, "If I come up and hit you in the face because I say you are a 'damn faggot,' that's different."
In the case of Sean Kennedy, Schwarzott says, "My feeling is it was a strictly a crime of hate. It should be tried as a hate crime, but there is no hate crime for him to be tried under."
The AFFA board member also says charges that a hate crime law will deny church leaders and their congregations of their free speech rights is also an accusation without merit.
Currently, Schwarzott says, there is no law requiring the state or city governments to report alleged hate crimes to the FBI; it is all done on a volunteer basis.
In 2005, there were 98 reported hate crimes across the state. Of those, 50 were motivated by race, 19 by religion, 12 by sexual orientation, 10 by ethnicity, and 7 by disability. Interestingly, neither Charleston, Columbia, nor Greenville contributed figures to the FBI, according to a 2005 FBI hate crime report. North Charleston, however, reported one hate crime.
In response to the death of Sean Kennedy, activists in the notoriously conservative Upstate have been motivated to highlight the need for hate crime legislation in the state. Last month, a candlelight vigil was held in downtown Greenville honoring Sean Kennedy and other hate crime victims and to encourage support for hate crime legislation. The event, Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights, was also held in 37 other cities across the nation.
Unlike many other gay advocacy events, Seven Straight Nights was led by straight people. Susan Craine, one of the event's organizers, says that all the speakers at the all-night rally were straight; Elke Kennedy was one of those featured. That evening, 1,138 candles were lit in the well-traveled plaza in downtown Greenville in acknowledgment of the various rights, Seven Straight Nights organizers say, which are denied to those in the LGBT community.
According to Craine, for those who aren't homosexual, it is often difficult for them to understand the discrimination faced each day by gays and lesbians. "The average straight person in their daily lives, they don't see it," she says.
That said, when it comes to the need for hate crime laws, "It's not just for sexual orientation," adds Craine, whose Cuban mother spoke about her encounters with discrimination at the vigil.
Noting the way that gay issues have divided the community, Craine says, "This area needs a lot of healing."
This is something that Elke Kennedy knows all too well. But for the healing to begin, the hearts and minds of the people must be changed. "I want something positive to come out of Sean's death," says Kennedy, who runs a website in honor of her son, www.seanslastwish.com. "I don't want people to forget who Sean was."
The passage of a hate crime bill just might be a good way to make sure that doesn't happen. — Chris Haire