The bill also:
The Act is named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Shepard was a student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. The attack was widely reported due to his being gay, and the trial employed a gay panic defense. Byrd was an African American man who was tied to a truck by two white supremacists, dragged behind it, and decapitated in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Shepard's murderers were given life sentences—in large part because his parents sought mercy for his killers. Two of Byrd's murderers were sentenced to death, while the third was sentenced to life in prison. All the convictions were obtained without the assistance of hate crimes laws, since none were applicable at the time.
The murders and subsequent trials brought national and international attention to the desire to amend U.S. hate crime legislation at both the state and federal levels. Wyoming hate crime laws at the time did not recognize homosexuals as a suspect class, whereas Texas had no hate crime laws at all.
Supporters of an expansion of hate crime laws argued that hate crimes are worse than regular crimes without a prejudiced motivation from a psychological perspective. The time it takes to mentally recover from a hate crime is almost twice as long as it is for a regular crime and LGBT people often feel as if they are being punished for their sexuality, which leads to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They also cited the response to Shepard's murder by many LGBT people, especially youth, who reported going back into the closet, fearing for their safety, experiencing a strong sense of self-loathing, and upset that the same thing could happen to them because of their sexual orientation.
The 1969 federal hate-crime law (18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(2)) extends to crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin, and only while the victim is engaging in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school. Penalties, under both the existing law and the LLEHCPA (Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, originally called the "Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act"), for hate crimes involving firearms are prison terms of up to 10 years, while crimes involving kidnapping, sexual assault, or murder can bring life in prison. In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act which allowed the government to count the incidence of hate crimes based on religion, race, national origin, and sexual orientation. However, a sentence was added onto the end of bill stating that federal funds should not be used to "promote or encourage homosexuality".