Published on Saturday, September 30, 2000 in the New York Times
Gay Man's Death Led to Epiphany for Wyoming Officer
by Michael Janofsky
LARAMIE, Wyo. — He said he grew up like so many other people he knew from small rural towns, unaware of gays and lesbians living among them. Besides, nobody back then used words like "gay" or "lesbian," anyway.
"You know how it is," David S. O'Malley said quietly, recalling his younger years in Kansas and Wyoming when it was common to disparage gays with nasty labels. "I never felt I was biased or bigoted, but I certainly made jokes about gay issues and never thought long enough that someone in the room would be offended."
Mr. O'Malley shook his head. A look of anguish washed over his face. "I'm ashamed," he said. "I'm ashamed because I know I said some of those things, and when I think back, I didn't know how insensitive that could be."
In the autumn of 1998, a young gay man attending the University of Wyoming here was lured out of a local bar, robbed, beaten and left unconscious, tied to a fence at the edge of town. He died in a hospital five days later; the two local roofers who were convicted of the homicide are serving a life sentence with no chance for parole. They admitted that they sought out the young man, Matthew Shepard, and beat him because he was gay.
Before the murder, Mr. O'Malley said, he never much thought about hate-crime legislation, let alone felt a need for it. A registered Republican who voted for George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, he accepted the notion that any crime is a hate crime, so why make the distinction?
Now, he is one the country's leading proponents of a measure supported by President Clinton and most Democratic lawmakers that would broaden federal law to include as hate crimes those motivated by the victim's gender, sexual orientation or disability. The existing law takes into account only a victim's religion, race, color and national origin.
Beyond expanding the definition, the measure would also help small cities like Laramie by providing much needed resources for investigation, prosecution and security. The cost of the Shepard case was so high, more than $150,000, that the Albany County Sheriff's Department was forced to furlough five deputies. It cost the city's Police Department about $25,000 in overtime.
The legislation is in a House-Senate conference committee, and proponents say it has a good chance of passing before the November elections if it remains where it is, as an amendment to the Defense Department budget authorization bill. Mr. Clinton has promised to sign it.
TO drum up support for the measure, Mr. O'Malley has traveled to Washington four times, most recently in mid-September when Mr. Clinton invited him to the White House and thanked him "as the embodiment of someone who has changed his position on this and has been courageous enough to say so."
Sitting in the quiet of his office here at police headquarters, Mr. O'Malley said his perspective changed profoundly as the Shepard case unfolded, drawing him close to the world he once ridiculed, a community that included Mr. Shepard's parents, Dennis and Judy, and his friends at the university, who Mr. O'Malley discovered to be terrified at what had happened.
"My eyes got opened up," he said. "I didn't realize how a hate crime affects all gays, not just an individual. Matt's friends were scared to death. Some left town as result of what happened. Some transferred to other schools. They knew that if it happened to him, it could happen to anybody. All kinds of people get killed every day, but I'm not afraid to go down to the liquor store to buy a six-pack as some of these people were. That had a real impact on me."
"It's absurd," he said softly, "that it took something this tragic to make it hit me. It affected me as well as my family," he added, referring to his wife, Jennifer, and their two children.
With the sentencing, the case was over. But Mr. O'Malley's efforts to promote its message — his epiphany — was only starting. On his first trip to Washington, he met with Attorney General Janet Reno, Mr. Clinton's chief of staff, John D. Podesta, and several Congressional leaders, including the bill's chief sponsor, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
On later visits, he met with Ms. Reno, Mr. Clinton, United States attorneys from around the country and more members of Congress. He joined Mr. Kennedy at a news conference last spring, before a Senate vote in which language of the amendment was approved, 57 to 42. More recently, the House passed a nonbinding resolution to approve the Senate amendment.
Oddly, he said, none of Wyoming's three members of Congress — Senators Craig Thomas and Michael B. Enzi and Representative Barbara Cubin, Republicans all — are supporting the legislation.
But Mr. O'Malley has vowed to fight on. "This whole thing has redefined my definition of commitment," he said. "This legislation is a no- brainer that is common sense and a matter of human decency that should not be politicized.
"I'm just hoping that the next time I go back to Washington, it's for the signing ceremony."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company