Courtesy of San Juan County Adult Detention Center
Courtesy of San Juan County Adult Detention Center (null)

FARMINGTON — A U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the hate crime conviction of a Fruitland man who participated in a branding of a mentally disabled Native American in Farmington in 2010.

The ruling was filed in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Wednesday.

William Hatch, 31, and two co-defendants were the first people in the country charged with violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The act, which Congress enacted in October 2009, broadened the scope when hate crime charges could be charged. The Matthew Shepard Act has led to a significant increases in the number of hate crime charges and convictions nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Act is named after Shepard, a gay man who in 1998 was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyo., and Byrd, an African-American man who was dragged to death behind a truck in 1998 in Jasper, Texas.

In addition to the state criminal charges the defendants faced, they were also charged in federal court with violating the Matthew Shepard Act.

In April 2010, Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford, of Farmington, and Hatch, of Fruitland, were working at a McDonald's in Farmington and persuaded a mentally disabled Native American at the restaurant to go to Beebe's apartment. While he was there, the three men wrote anti-gay slurs on him and shaved a swastika into his head. They also heated a wire hangar on a stove and branded a swastika on his arm, according to court documents.

Six months after Beebe, Sanford and Hatch were charged in state court with kidnapping, battery and other charges related to the incident, the three men were indicted in federal court for violating the Matthew Shepard Act.

Hatch pleaded guilty in June 2011 to a lesser charge of conspiracy to violate the Act but appealed his conviction. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and three years of probation, which started in February 2012. He is currently serving a three-month sentence for a probation violation.

Beebe and Sanford also pleaded guilty to lesser charges and are currently serving eight- and five-year prison sentences, respectively.

In the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Hatch's attorney, Richard Winterbottom, unsuccessfully argued before the court that a provision of the Matthew Shepard Act was unconstitutional because Congress exceeded its 13th Amendment enforcement power in creating certain aspects of the Act.

He said adding federal hate crime charges on top of state charges for racially motivated attacks "undermines state sovereignty by granting the government unbridled and unneeded discretion to punish hate crimes that the states are effectively prosecuting," according to court documents.

The appeals court, in a ruling filed Wednesday, rejected the argument and upheld Hatch's conviction. In their opinion, the 10th Circuit judges said the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, gave Congress the power need to create the Matthew Shepard Act.

Hatch can appeal the decision to the full 10th Circuit Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. Winterbottom could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

"The Act now stands on firmer constitutional grounds," said University of New Mexico law professor Dawinder Sidhu in an email. "Federal prosecutors should have greater assurance that the provision can be applied to relevant circumstances without facing the prospect of these constitutional challenges."

Sidhu was part of a group of law professors who filed motions to submit legal documents in the case pertaining to the 13th Amendment to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which ruled on Hatch's appeal.

"Hate crimes and bias-motivated violence unfortunately continue to be present in our society," Sidhu said. "The Act serves as an important tool -- passed by Congress and validated by the courts -- to address that mistreatment."

As of April, the Matthew Shepard Act has been used in 13 cases nationwide, including the one in Farmington. Thirty-seven people have been accused of violating the Act, and 33 of those have been convicted, according to the U.S. Justice Department's website.

Since the Matthew Shepard Act was enacted, there was a 29 percent increase in hate crime prosecutions in federal court.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division declined to comment on Wednesday.

In a prepared statement when Beebe and Sanford were sentenced in January 2012, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said, "The Justice Department will not tolerate violent racially-motivated assaults and will continue to work cooperatively with our state and local partners to aggressively enforce the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act."

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.