Missouri law doesn’t allow hate crime charges in transgender teen’s brutal slaying

Many have called for the gruesome killing of Ally Steinfeld, a transgender teen in the Ozarks, to be investigated as a hate crime.

These calls are motivated by the particularly vicious nature of the alleged crimes — police say Steinfeld’s eyes were gouged out and her genitals stabbed — and the fact that she had only recently come out as a trans female, according to Steph Perkins, the executive director of Missouri LGBT-rights group PROMO.

However, Missouri law does not provide the option to law enforcement to investigate Steinfeld’s case as a possible hate crime.

Only lesser crimes can be investigated and charged as hate crimes, according to Texas County Prosecutor Parke Stevens Jr.

“There is no enhanced penalty under (Missouri hate crime law) for murder in the first degree, armed criminal action, abandonment of a corpse or tampering with physical evidence,” Stevens wrote by email to The Star.

Those are the criminal charges that have been filed in Steinfeld’s killing. Andrew Vrba, Briana Calderas and Isis Schauer face first-degree murder and additional charges, while James Grigsby is charged with abandonment of a corpse and armed criminal action.

Steinfeld killing
Four people are charged in connection to the killing of 17-year-old Ally Steinfeld, a transgender teen. All but James Grigsby are charged with first-degree murder. Texas County Sheriff’s Office

Stevens, as well as Texas County Sheriff James Sigman, made early statements insisting hate crime charges would not be pursued in the case.

“I would say murder in the first degree is all that matters,” Stevens told The Associated Press. “That is a hate crime in itself.”

And, Sigman said, “You don’t kill someone if you don’t have hate in your heart. But no, it’s not a hate crime.”

That’s not sufficient consideration given to Steinfeld’s gender identity and whether it played a role in the killing, Perkins said.

“I think to discredit gender identity in the context of her murder conveys a message that law enforcement doesn’t understand the threat of violence toward trans people in our daily lives,” Perkins said, who is a trans man.

In probable cause statements, the Texas County Sheriff’s investigators misgendered Steinfeld by using male pronouns and calling her by her birth name.

“Violence against trans people is a heartbreaking crisis, so when it happens to somebody in your own state, as a trans person it’s especially hard,” Perkins said. “And to see the responses of how Ally is being treated — whether or not her gender identity is taken seriously is a constant reminder of how I might be treated if something happened to me.”

The maximum penalty for first-degree murder in Missouri is the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Thus a hate crime enhancement could not make any potential sentencing more severe for three of the four suspects charged with first-degree murder in this case.

Even so, LGBT advocates say there is still value to pursuing hate crime charges.

“It serves as education for a community — to demystify (LGBT people),” said Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis.

“You want to send a message to the broader LGBT community, which is: ‘We’re here to protect you, too. You’re a recognized part of society.’ ”

Jolie Justus, a former Missouri senator and current KC councilwoman, said Missouri was actually among the first states to add gender identity to its hate crime law, which passed in 1999.

“Most of the hate crime (legislation) at the time in the country only involved sexual orientation,” Justus said.

Though Missouri law precludes hate crime charges at the state level in the Steinfeld case, Justus wondered whether there could be consideration given by federal investigators as to whether this was a hate crime — “to add that extra layer of recognizing what this (killing) was about.”

But FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said the agency, while aware of the case, is not involved in the investigation. “That matter is being handled by local authorities,” she said.

A 2009 federal law, inspired partly by the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, included gender identity as a category to be covered by hate crime provisions, but only last May did those provisions lead to a conviction for the first time — a Mississippi man, Joshua Vallum, received a 49-year prison sentence in the 2015 killing of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old transgender woman. She was shocked with a stun gun, stabbed and beaten to death to keep Vallum’s fellow Latin Kings gang members from discovering the two were having sex.

“It’s very difficult without that proverbial smoking gun to actually bring a hate crime successfully,” Justus said. “Because you have to get into the head of the (alleged perpetrator).”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg