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Candlelight vigil held for slain gay Alabama teen

Candlelight vigil held for slain gay Alabama teen

More than 100 people attended a candlelight vigil in Mobile, Ala.'s Washington Square for an 18-year-old gay man who was beaten and stabbed to death and his body set on fire in Baldwin County. The Sunday night vigil was held in memory of Scotty Joe Weaver of Bay Minette, who was fatally attacked July 18 at his trailer home. His burned body was found four days later in the woods. His two roommates and an acquaintance have been charged with capital murder. Authorities have said Weaver was robbed of about $80 and that his sexual orientation was a factor in his killing. Vigil organizer Tony Thompson, who helped start a community center called Bay Area Inclusion, has said he felt the center's efforts to prevent hate crimes had failed. "But when I come out here and see all these people who came to remember someone most of us probably never even met, I feel like we've succeeded," he said. Several speakers used the vigil as a call for political and religious reform, saying churches often turn a blind eye to violence against gays and preach that homosexuality is a sin. Weaver's death is a chilling reminder of the murder of Billy Jack Gaither, who was kidnapped and beaten to death before his body was set on fire in a pile of kerosene-soaked tires in rural Coosa County in 1999. His killer and a cohort received sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. It raised once again the question of whether the state--struggling with its history of racial intolerance--should do more to protect gays and lesbians. "In Alabama we have very little violent crime against race. We've gone past that in our state," said Baldwin County district attorney David Whetstone. "We're not there yet in lifestyle changes. We haven't arrived yet to more acceptance." Though robbery was initially thought to be the primary motive in Weaver's killing, Whetstone said last week that "there's not a doubt in my mind" that the teen's homosexuality played a greater role. "We have very specific evidence that indicates part of the motive involved his sexual orientation," said Whetstone. The two deaths are the only gay-related killings reported in the state in the past five years, but many cases of antigay assault, abuse, and harassment go unreported, said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative. Those cases raise the need for a change to the state hate-crimes statute, which does not cover sexual orientation. "I think there are few people who identify as gay or lesbian in Alabama because it's not a gay-friendly jurisdiction," Stevenson said. "You can't rely on the extent of the reporting as a full measure for the size of the problem." Stevenson and state representative Alvin Holmes, among others, have called for a change to the statute to include sexual orientation. Holmes (D-Montgomery) proposed an amendment that passed in the Alabama house this year, but it was timed-out in the senate. He said Weaver's killing would give momentum to the amendment, which he planned to reintroduce in the 2005 legislative session. Holmes said that as a black civil rights activist he is "morally obligated" to help another minority group. "Notwithstanding your personal preferences, it's wrong to mistreat people because of their sexual orientation," he said. "What happened to Gaither and what happened in south Alabama--we need to get a bill that says, If you hurt somebody because of their sexual orientation, you will pay a heavy price for it." "To have a state exclude a particular group because you don't like that group makes no sense at all," Stevenson added. "Those laws were intended to protect people who were disfavored or hated by a particular group." Whetstone said that even though he can't directly apply the hate-crime statute to the killing, he will pursue the death penalty based on the robbery and the brutal nature of the killing.

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