Local and federal law enforcement are probing the beating of an openly gay man in Rock Hill, South Carolina, officials confirmed to Raw Story Tuesday.
The FBI and the York County Sheriff's office are examining video that shows Joshua Esskew, an openly gay 19-year-old man, being beaten on April 9. If suspects are located and charged with a hate crime, it would be the first ever prosecution under The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
FBI special agent Earl Burns told Raw Story that the agency was looking into the beating as a possible hate crime.
"We gather the facts because the prosecutors are the one who are going to take that into court, and they are the ones that are actually going to make the decision on how this -- after all the facts are gathered -- how that will be handled and looked at," he explained.
"Matters of this sort - hate, civil rights - are one of our highest priorities in the bureau," Burns told The Herald Monday.
"What we're trying to do now is determine the extent of FBI involvement."
The U.S. Attorney's office in Columbia declined to confirm an ongoing investigation, but a spokesman did say that hate crimes "are one of our top priorities."
York County Sheriff's office spokesman Lt. Mike Baker also told Raw Story that his department had initiated an investigation. However, the attack was being investigated as an assault because South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law.
"The Sheriff's Office confirms that the Federal Bureau of Investigations has communicated with the Sheriff's Office regarding the Sheriff's Office investigation into the assault," a press release (.pdf) said.
At the time of publication, no arrests had been made.
In an interview with WCNC last week, Esskew said that he heard his attackers use a gay slur.
"I responded with, 'What was that you said?' But nothing offensive toward them," he explained.
"Three came up from the gas pumps. Two came up toward the laundromat. There were three or four already standing there. They all just came," he continued.
"I believe it was a hate crime," Esskew said. "I don't have any hate in my heart toward any one of those guys. I believe justice does need to be served. I just really wish they would realize how good of a person they did this to."
Scott Hall, founder of the Gay American Heroes Foundation, told Raw Story that his organization was outraged because there had been no hate crimes prosecutions in the 18 months since the The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act had become law.
"We have one gay bashing every six hours," Hall said. "We have hundreds of cases of bashings, murders and attacks, and not one have been prosecuted under the new law."
"I don't think there's any precedent set and it's not been defined exactly how and what is going to be done. So, there is no teeth to the law."
Hall's organization is calling for South Carolina and every state in the union to enact individual hate crimes laws. Elke Kennedy is one board member working towards that cause. Her son Sean died at the age of 20 as a result of an anti-gay crime in 2007. She has been working to create hate crimes legislation in South Carolina in his memory.
Hall noted that only one in seven hate crimes against gay people get reported because of "the cage of shame and fear that the LGBT community are put in by the society which the live in where they should be protected -- which is un-American in istelf."
Gay American Heroes Foundation plans to honor Esskew with their "Heart of a Hero" award in May.
Read the York County Sheriff's office press release with a description of the crime here (pdf).
Watch this video from WCNC, broadcast April 15, 2011.