'So who knows what is around the corner or down the street. I'm just going to live life and find out.'
-Sean Kennedy, from his diary
Sean Kennedy was born in Charleston, grew up in Summerville and Greenville, loved computers, made dozens and dozens of good friends and was there for anyone in need, his mother said.
In the early morning hours of May 16, outside a Greenville bar, the 20-year-old was punched in the face by an assailant, fell to the pavement, cracked his skull open and died. Kennedy was openly gay.
Witnesses said his attacker commented on Kennedy's sexual orientation during the assault, authorities reported.
Greenville County Sheriff's deputies, who arrested a Taylors teenager May 18 on murder charges, are investigating the case as a homicide and possible hate crime.
There's just one problem: South Carolina has no hate crime statute, so authorities are relying on the FBI, which has jurisdiction, to bring those charges.
Stephen Andrew Moller, 18, is in jail without bond, according to Greenville County Sheriff's spokesman Master Deputy Mike Hildebrand. Moller is accused of jumping out of a car in front of Brew's bar on Pelham Road about 3:45 a.m., striking Kennedy in the face, then leaving the scene, Hildebrand said. Moller did not know the victim and is believed to be the only suspect, he said.
Kennedy's death may be the latest incident involving gay and lesbian victims who are attacked because of their sexual orientation, and it's prompting some South Carolina lawmakers to push hard to include a hate crime provision in the state's code of laws.
South Carolina, Wyoming and Indiana are the only three states without hate crime legislation.
Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, is sponsoring a bill now before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that would add a section establishing penalties for noncapital criminal offenses and define a hate crime as an assault, intimidation or threat based on 'actual or perceived' race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin and sexual orientation.
A House bill sponsored by Rep. Seth Whipper, D-Charleston, and co-sponsored by 11 others, would likewise introduce a hate crime provision, defined similarly. Any such perpetrator would be guilty of a felony, the proposed House bill reads.
Related legislation was adopted at the federal level by the House and the Matthew Shepard Act now is being debated in the Senate. It is named for a young man who was slain for being gay. So far, federal law has not included sexual orientation as a covered class in hate crimes, but these laws would change that.
On Friday, the Gallup organization released the results of a poll conducted earlier this month that showed 68 percent of all Americans believe that federal hate crime laws should protect people from discrimination or violence on the basis of sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.
Support for the new hate crime legislation is strong across political parties. Seventy-five percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Independents and 60 percent of Republicans agree that hate crime laws should include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The FBI, which has jurisdiction over hate crimes in South Carolina, recorded 105 hate crimes in the state in 2004 and 98 in 2005. About half each year were based on race; gays and lesbians were attacked 18 times in 2004 and 12 times in 2005, according to the federal agency.
'We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.'
The punch was unexpected, Hildebrand said. 'It kind of came out of nowhere, (Kennedy) would have been taken off guard.'
Elke Kennedy, Sean's mother, said she's still got a lot of questions about what happened. A few details have been described by police, witnesses and friends of her son:
As Sean and a group of friends were leaving Brew's, Sean doubled back, saying he forgot something inside. His friends continued to the car, parked in an adjacent lot and waited. Suddenly, police cruisers and an ambulance turned up, lights and sirens blazing. The carload of friends, remembering a shooting at the bar a few months earlier, got scared and took off. But another friend phoned a few minutes later, imploring them to return. 'You better come back, Sean's been hurt,' he said.
A female friend found Kennedy face down on the ground in front of the bar a minute or two after the attack.
He was bleeding and making gurgling sounds, Sean's mother said. The female friend asked the bouncer at the door to call 911, but he dismissed the request, saying he figured Sean collapsed because he was drunk. But somebody did call 911.
At 4:55 a.m. on May 16, Elke Kennedy's telephone rang. It was someone at the hospital urging her to get to the emergency room as soon as possible. When she arrived, she found her son on life support. At 11:20 that night, Sean Kennedy was pronounced brain-dead.
'Until then, we were clinging on,' Elke Kennedy said.
Ford said he thinks his bill will pass next year, once the Legislature is back in session. He plans to push it hard.
'We've got to send a clear message to our citizens that these things will not be allowed in our state,' he said.
Whipper said he's been trying to get the legislation to the floor for at least four years. A couple of years ago, former state Rep. John Graham Altman killed it. But now, in the aftermath of Sean Kennedy's death, Whipper thinks the bill will gain momentum.
Many assume that hate crime legislation only protects liberals and people who live alternative lifestyles, Whipper said. But that's a misperception. Everyone benefits from such laws, he said, and it's one of government's primary responsibilities to protect its citizens and guarantee an ordered society.
Those who oppose the enactment of hate crime legislation argue that it creates a special class of citizens who receive greater protection under the law, according to Carrie Gordon Earll of Focus on the Family.
'(Such bills) pave the way for religious persecution through 'hate speech,' in particular for Christians and other faith groups who hold traditional beliefs on homosexuality,' she said.
'Never regret. If it's good, then it's wonderful; if it's bad, then it's an experience.'
In the days following the attack on Sean Kennedy, the family has come closer together, Elke Kennedy said.
Her focus shifts. In one moment, she is finding comfort among relatives and friends, in the next, she rages against the injustice of her son's death.
'People should not be judged or attacked or killed because (others) don't like who they are,' she said, determined to push lawmakers to modify the state's hate laws so justice can be meted out, so gays and lesbians aren't made targets because of who they are.
Her son was a kind and generous person, always ready to be a friend or support someone in need, Elke Kennedy said.
So it was only natural that Sean was an organ donor. After his death, doctors removed his heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. Already, four other lives have been saved, his mother said.
About 650 people turned up at Sean Kennedy's funeral last Sunday.
'I can only hope in my life to touch so many people,' Elke Kennedy said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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