Activists, politicians, urge Puerto Rican authorities to prosecute López murder as hate crime

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Wednesday November 18, 2009

As activists on Puerto Rico and around the country continue to organize vigils and other memorials in honor of Jorge Steven López, LGBT rights organizations and even politicians have urged local officials to treat the teenager's gruesome murder as a hate crime.

"I strongly condemn this horrible crime and urge that it be treated as the heinous hate-crime that it is," New York Congressman José Serrano said in a statement his office released on Nov. 17. "Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act to address just this type of offense. I urge the federal government to provide Puerto Rican authorities with assistance in this investigation. The parties responsible must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of either Puerto Rican law or our new federal hate crimes law."

Fellow Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez [D-NY,] who is also Puerto Rican, agreed.

"This was a cruel and monstrous act," she said. "Those responsible must be held accountable. Crimes motivated by hate are unacceptable and must not be tolerated."

Jeremy Pittman, deputy field director of the Human Rights Campaign, told EDGE earlier today his organization reached out to its contacts within the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division early Monday morning after news of López's murder broke. A Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation spokesperson added her organization continues to monitor local media reports to ensure they cover the murder fairly and accurately.

Other LGBT advocacy organizations have publicly condemned López's gruesome death.

"The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund sends its deepest condolences to the friends and family of Jorge Steven López Mercado," TLDEF executive director Michael Silverman said. "We urge local authorities to continue to investigate this murder, and to bring all appropriate charges, including hate crimes charges, that are appropriate in this case."

The Puerto Rican government added sexual orientation to its hate crimes laws in 2002, but Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and other activists contend local authorities have not used the statute to prosecute those accused of anti-gay violence. Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's office in San Juan announced earlier this week they will assist local officials if they decide to prosecute suspect Juan A. Martínez under the territory's hate crimes law.

Martínez reportedly thought López was a woman when he solicited him for sex in a Caguas neighborhood. Puerto Rican media outlets continue to report the suspect confessed he killed López after he discovered he was actually a man-and Martínez plans to use a "gay panic" defense in court.

"The confession confirms that this should be effectively treated as a hate crime," Puerto Rico Civil Rights Commission member Vance Thomas told Primera Hora (as translated from Spanish.) "In this sense, we are slowly breaking the myth that these crimes do not occur in Puerto Rico... and we should be making sure there are more rigorous investigations into them the possibility a crime based on some sort of prejudice exists."

López's murder comes less than two months after blogs reported a man allegedly
killed a transgender prostitute on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, Havana, by setting her on fire. The teenager's death also carries similarities to the murder of Rashawn Brazell, a 19-year-old gay man from the Brooklyn whose dismembered body was found inside a subway tunnel and in other locations around the borough in Feb. 2005.

Activists across the country continue to unveil details for vigils and other memorials to pay tribute to López. Equality Forum announced a vigil will take place at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany (330 S. 13th St.) in Philadelphia on Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m. New York activists have also announced tentative plans to hold a memorial service on the Christopher Street Pier on Nov. 22.

A group of Puerto Rican religious leaders and others also plan to gather in front of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Office in Midtown Manhattan tomorrow night to condemn the killing.

"The purpose of this gathering is to pray for his family and also to denounce the bigotry and homophobia that would lead some people of faith to condone such a crime," the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cruz, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, said. "We are also going to call on other people of good faith to stand up to such hate crimes regardless of their beliefs in terms of the LGBT community."

Serrano stressed he feels attention should remain on López's murder and not the circumstances that reportedly contributed to his death.

"We have to keep the attention here it deserves to be: a young gay man was brutally murdered by someone who did not have any compassion or respect for the dignity of a human life," he said.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.