Two weeks after a gay teen was brutally beaten by a group of men, several lawmakers are working to pass a hate crime bill in South Carolina, for the second time, including a representative from York County.
Joshua Esskew, 19, was beaten on Saturday, April 9, by a group of at least eight men at the Spot Convenience Store on South Cherry Road. Esskew believes the attack, which was caught on tape, happened because he is openly gay.
The York County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the crime and plans to seek second-degree felony charges of Assault and Battery by a Mob against the attackers once the suspects are identified. If convicted, the suspects could be sentenced up to 25 years in prison.
An agent with the FBI said his agency is looking into the case to determine if it meets the statutes for federal hate crime charges. The state of South Carolina doesn’t currently have an enhancement of penalties for what might be deemed a “hate crime,” said Lieutenant Mike Baker with the York County Sheriff’s Office.
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York County representative John King, however, plans to reintroduce a bill next week that would change that.
Last year, King introduced House Bill 4224, but the proposal didn’t have a co-sponsor and never made it past a House Judiciary Committee. This year, the bill is getting a co-sponsor and a new chance at life.
Representative J. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat from Columbia who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he plans to reintroduce the bill before the committee on Tuesday when legislators return from furlough leave.
“We’re gonna try and make sure this bill gets passed,” Rutherford said. ”So that hate in South Carolina is not a family value.”
While walking to the gas station, Esskew says someone yelled a derogatory homosexual comment at him.
Words were exchanged and when he turned around, someone hit him in the head with a 40-ounce malt liquor bottle. He was then beaten by at least eight men for nearly 15 seconds.
He was also kicked and punched by members of the group.
Images of the attack, which were caught on the store’s video surveillance system, have been released to the public in hopes of identifying the suspects.
But former prosecutor, and current Republican Representative from York County, Tommy Pope says what’s on the books goes far enough.
“It is an assault case that’s gonna require an additional element,” he said.
The attack has angered many in the community, including professors and student advisorsat nearby Winthrop University.
“My first thought was that, I’ve got to let my students know so that when they are out and about in Rock hill that they, you know, act straight, And that’s a sad lesson in 2011 to be teaching young people. I mean, it’s been off the books as a mental illness since 1973,” said Kelly James who teaches sociology and criminology at Winthrop University.
James is also the advisor for the university’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender ally league known as GLoBAL. She says the attack has her worried about students’ safety in Rock Hill and she welcomes federal involvement in the investigation.
She feels South Carolina’s laws don’t go far enough in protecting those who are the victims of targeted violence like this.
“The legislators aren’t interested in it,” James said. “There’s been grassroots activism, but there’s been no change in the system.”
Representative Rutherford, who expects there to be a fight to get the bill passed, says he wants to change some of the language to make it less ambiguous and give it a better chance at passage.
The original proposal calls for prison time of a least two years, but not more than 15, for anyone convicted of assaulting, intimidating or threatening a person because of their “race, religion or sexual orientation.”
The lack of a ‘hate crime’ charge in South Carolina is one thing the Gay American Heroes Foundation, a group that advocates for gay rights, hopes to change in the wake of this attack.
“It’s been 18 months since the Matthew Shepard Law was passed and there have been hundreds of gay beatings and murders, but not once has been prosecuted under the new law,” said the group’s founder and president, Scott Hall. “It’s time to make our voices heard and make this a landmark case. These are horrendous crimes and while driven by hate, [they] are not always prosecuted as such.”
Representative Rutherford says he believes the fact that South Carolina does not have a hate crime law could be a deterrent for bringing new companies to the state in the future and could hurt the state’s economic development.
“This poor young man up in Rock Hill was assaulted by a mob,” Rutherford said. “What are you all gonna do as a reaction to that, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. And if our answer is ‘nothing’, then we can’t bring businesses here.”
Meanwhile, Special Agent Earl Burns with the FBI said his agency is coordinating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if the case can be moved up to the federal level with a hate crime charge
If you know who the suspects are, call the York County Sheriff’s Office at 803-628-3059 or Crime Stoppers at 1-877-409-4321. Tips may also be emailed by accessing the sheriff’s office website at www.yorkcrimestoppers.com.
Courtesy of WBTV.com