A cross burning at the home of a gay man in Meigs County has caught the attention of the Ninth Judicial District Attorney, who has requested the assistance of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The cross burning case incident occurred on Thursday, June 29, when Brandon Waters, 23, of Ten Mile, Tenn., discovered the cross burning in his driveway.
The 6 to 8 foot-tall cross was discovered soon after the family had returned from dinner at the home Waters shares with his 62-year-old mother. They noticed the blaze as they looked out their front window. Perpetrators apparently left an offensive message containing homophobic slurs.
The cross burning is only the latest in a series of hate-based harassment inflicted on Waters and his partner, Brian Harmon, and his friend, Claudia. All three have encountered hate speech based on sexual orientation in the Meigs County area.
“We just want to live our lives,” says Waters. “I don’t understand why people can’t just leave us alone.”
Ninth Judicial District Attorney General Scott McCluen’s office announced that they had opened an investigation into the case. McCluen’s office indicated that they would request the assistance of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. TBI spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson confirmed that request.
The initial investigation conducted by the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office uncovered few leads as to the identity of the perpetrators.
“There is no person of interest at this time,” says Hickman. “We really don’t have a lot to go on. We have talked to all the neighbors. Nobody saw anything.”
According to reports from News Channel 9 in Chattanooga, occupants of a residence across the road from the Waters home offered comments on two newscasts airing on Friday, June 30.
“I don’t really know what happened and don’t really give a damn, but whoever done it, I’d probably give ’em 50 more [expletive deleted] dollars to do it again,” said James “Cotton” England who along with his wife, Judy England, and his brother, Mike England, live directly across the road from Waters.
The sheriff’s office called in investigators from the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s office. Bob Pollard of the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Bomb and Arson Squad verifies their availability as a resource for Meigs County officials.
A report by the “Daily Post-Athenian” that was picked up by the Associated Press said no hate crime had occurred because the victim was gay. “The Daily Post Athenian” is published in nearby McMinn County.
While federal hate crime statutes do not contain protections for sexual orientation or gender identity, Tennessee does have a statute on the books that came about as part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1989. The statute — § 40-35-114 (17) — contains provisions that allow criminal court judges to substantially lengthen the penalty for any crime if the target is selected because of sexual orientation.
Speaking from Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office, Jack Senterfitt, senior legal counsel, said, “The Tennessee statute does provide us with an enhancement factor if the defendant intentionally selected the victim because of sexual orientation. That would enable the judge to enhance or lengthen a sentence that would otherwise be imposed for any conviction.”
In other words, any conviction for a crime related to this incident such as possible arson, malicious burning, terrorist threats, or criminal trespassing could result in extended jail time and other penalties because Waters was targeted based solely his on sexual orientation. According to Senterfitt, judges in such cases are obligated to consider the crime victim’s sexual orientation status if appropriate, but they are not bound by any requirement to attach additional penalties.
“This incident is terrifying. The Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) hopes that all applicable laws are brought to bear. What the situation also makes clear is that we need stronger hate crimes laws at the state and federal level and that local law enforcement officers need additional training in this area,” asserts Chris Sanders, TEP president.
Sarah Scanlon, regional field director for the Human Rights Campaign, weighed in as well. “We’ll be working with the TEP to keep watch on this situation. This was a horrible crime and regardless of the laws should be called for what it is: a hate crime.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said they had no jurisdiction in the case because of a lack of federal hate crime protection for GLBT Americans.
Gary Kidder of the Knoxville FBI office notes that while their office tracks hate crimes based on sexual orientation for statistical purposes, they would have no jurisdiction in this case because of the lack of federal protections.
“When we do bring charges in cases such as this, they are based on civil rights violations,” explains Kidder.
Additional national attention has come from Carolyn Wagner, former national Vice President of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and active member of Families United Against Hate, a nonprofit grassroots organization created by and for families and survivors of hate motivated violence. Wagner has offered support to the Waters family as the mother of a gay son who has encountered hate-based violence.
“We can send letters [from our organization] to help push for justice if you should need us,” offers Wagner.