Renewed bipartisan push gets tougher Pa. hate-crime bill back on the table

For years Pennsylvania Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-172nd Dist.) and Rep. Thomas Murt (R-152nd Dist.) have tried but failed to toughen the state’s hate-crime law. Now, they’re hoping their third try will be successful.

Their bipartisan bill, which was inspired by a high profile and vicious attack in 2014 on a young gay couple in Center City, is now in the hands of the State House Judiciary Committee.

Boyle and Murt re-introduced the bill, now called HB 635, “to expand the offense of ethnic intimidation to include malicious intention against the actual or perceived ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals.”

That would make “a crime motivated by hatred towards these protected classes … graded one degree higher than already specified in law.”

Boyle and Murt, on opposite sides of the aisle, had introduced during the past two legislative sessions. They started their effort just months following the 2014 attack on Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught in Center City.

Should the latest bill pass, it would mean stronger penalties for defendants found guilty in cases like that of Hesse and Haught. The two were verbally taunted and kicked in their heads, chests and faces during an encounter at 16th and Chancellor streets. The couple was left severely injured.

Three defendants were charged in the case and witnesses said the trio used antigay slurs during the incident, which began as a verbal altercation and escalated to a physical attack that left Haught with multiple broken facial bones. Haught underwent surgery and had his jaw wired shut for eight weeks.

Two of the attackers, Kevin Harrigan and Philip Williams, pleaded guilty and accepted plea deals in the case and avoided jail time.

A third co-defendant, Kathryn Knott, took her case to trial. Victims Hesse and Haught took the stand, and Knott was convicted of four misdemeanor charges: simple assault, reckless endangerment and conspiracy to commit simple assault against Hesse, and reckless endangerment against Haught. She served five months in prison.

Under current state law, Hesse and Haught’s attackers could not be charged with a hate crime. That remains the case.

“Because the Supreme Court invalidated the state’s hate crime legislation on a technicality, it is imperative that we pass House Bill 635,” Rep. Murt explained. “Perpetrating a crime against someone because of their ethnic background or sexual orientation makes the underlying crime especially heinous and must be punished with extraordinary measures. House Bill 635 does that.”

So on Feb. 28, the latest bill (with 46 cosponsors) was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Sens. Lawrence Farnese (D-1st Dist.) and Anthony Williams (D-8th Dist.) introduced a similar bill, SB 96, on the Senate side. Their bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 14.

The victims in the 2014 case settled their civil suit against the three attackers near the end of 2017.