Guilty pleas in swastika-branding case

The first men to be charged under a 2009 federal law that bans hate crimes against disabled people have pleaded guilty.

In November 2010, a federal grand jury indicated Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford of Farmingham, N.M., and William Hatch of Fruitland, N.M., on one count of conspiracy and one count of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Los Angeles Times reports. Their crime: Branding a developmentally disabled 22-year-old Navajo Indian man with a swastika.

On Thursday, Beebe, 28, pleaded guilty to violating the federal hate crimes act and Sanford, 26, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate it. Hatch, 29, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge in June.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded the federal hate crimes law to cover violence based on gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, The Associated Press reports. The law also removed a requirement that a victim must be involved in a federally protected activity such as voting or attending school.

The law is named for a gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998 (Shepard) and an African-American man who was decapitated in Texas in 1998 after he was dragged behind a truck by two white supremacists (Byrd), the L.A. Times says.

According to Reuters:

The defendants in this case admitted covering the victim's body with white supremacist and anti-Native American symbols, including shaving a swastika in the back of his head and using markers to write the words "KKK" and "White Power" on his skin, a Justice Department statement said…. Beebe branded him with a swastika using a heated wire hanger as the man sat with a towel shoved in his mouth, officials said.

The men recorded everything on cell phones.

Beebe and Sanford exploited the man's disability and "defamed his body with the most obvious symbol of hate,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees the Justice Department's civil rights division, told the AP. "Just when you think you've seen it all, along comes a case that shocks the conscious," he said.

“No one anywhere, but especially in a state like New Mexico that prides itself on its ethnic, racial and cultural diversity, should be victimized because of what he or she happens to be," U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico Kenneth J. Gonzales said in a statement. "The young victim in this case was assaulted, branded and scarred because he happens to be a Native American – that simply is inexcusable and criminal."

Beebe will serve 8½ years in prison and the other two men will serve five years each, Gonzales said.