Hate-Crime Acquittal Roils LGBTQ Community in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W. Va. (CN) – Living in one of the 20 states where it is not a hate crime to attack someone for being gay, Angel Harless had been optimistic about finding justice when federal prosecutors indicted the man who knocked her unconscious last fall in a West Virginia bar.

Angel Harless poses for a photo at a bookstore coffee shop in Charleston, West Virginia, in September 2018. Days earlier, a federal jury acquitted John Perry Taylor IV of using a glass beer bottle to knock Harless unconscious. (YAWANA WOLFE, Courthouse News Service)

After that trial ended on Aug. 29 in an acquittal for John Perry Taylor IV, her positivity has taken a sharper focus.

“Even though I am a little discouraged, I still see now more than ever the need for something to be done about it,” said Harless, sitting down for an interview about her case in the coffee shop at Taylor Books in downtown Charleston.

At Taylor’s trial, which ran for two days in Charleston, prosecutors laid out the case that Taylor wielded a glass bottle in an Oct. 7, 2017, attack at The Empty Glass, a favorite watering hole of locals in the city’s East End.

Harless took the stand using her legal name, Angela Portnoy, but jurors credited the defense of 34-year-old Taylor that the “bar brawl” erupted after Harless aggressively bumped into him.

Research shows that the attack on Harless occurred as America’s 10 largest cities saw a 12 percent spike in hate crimes from 2016. Though overall crime has been declining in the United States since the early 1990s, the rate of hate crimes in these cities has been on the rise for the past four years, according to a report released in May by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

Along with attacks on Jews, Muslims and blacks, the FBI continually ranks anti-gay crimes at the top of what it groups as single-bias incidents in annual hate crime statistics.

Still West Virginia is one of 20 states that lack LGBTQ protections under hate crime laws.

One group fighting to change that is the organization Fairness WV, which backed a bill in the state Legislature last year that would add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to the state law on hate crimes.

“Despite the support, our former House Speaker Tim Armstead, who was notorious for his anti-LGBTQ views, kept the bill from ever coming up for a vote,” Billy Wolfe of Fairness WV said in an email. “Now that a new speaker has been elected, we are hopeful for the prospects of the bill going forward.”

Wolfe called Taylor’s acquittal particularly frustrating in the wake of the 2017 ruling from the West Virginia Supreme Court that blocked state prosecutors from bringing hate-crime charges against a college football player.

Back in April 2015, former Marshall University football player Steward Butler punched two men in the face after seeing them kissing on the sidewalk in Huntington, West Virginia. Butler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery charges and received a six-month sentence last year after the dismissal of hate-crime charges was upheld.

“West Virginia’s LGBTQ community is hurting in the aftermath of this case,” Wolfe said of Taylor’s acquittal. “We believe this case, in addition to the Steward Butler verdict from last year, underscores the need to clarify West Virginia’s hate crimes law to make sure that sexual orientation and gender identity are added as protected classes.”

For Harless, Taylor’s acquittal highlights the need for more activism, political organizing, and strengthened ties between the LGBTQ community and straight allies.

“I don’t think anyone is going to hold our hand through it though,” Harless said.

She noted in an interview that the election of President Donald Trump seems to have emboldened people with homophobic views.

“Before, it would be looks,” she said. “It would be knowing that people didn’t like you by the looks they gave you and by them being quiet about it. Now, people are being way more vocal and aggressive about it. Even like being in the grocery store and people saying something to you. I think I have been called a dyke more in the past two years than I ever have in my entire life.”

It was an anti-gay slur that allegedly set off the altercation last year with Taylor as well.

“When we walked in, I heard him say, ‘Nobody told me this was a fucking fag bar,’” Harless said. “And at the time, I didn’t know he was talking about me. I just thought it was an odd thing to say.”

Prosecutors would show at trial later that Taylor’s ex-fiancee had begun dating a woman after she and Taylor broke up.

Harless said she had tried to ignore Taylor, even as his epithets became more pointed throughout the night, allegedly yelling, “I guess you dykes think you’re so entitled in this country!” and “Not in my country, not in my country!”

Though Taylor testified that he blacked out — remembering nothing after Harless allegedly bumped into him — multiple witnesses testified that they saw him push Harless to the ground and hit her head with a beer bottle repeatedly.

“I could hear the glass hitting the side of my head and I don’t really remember anything after that until I woke up outside later with the police,” she said. “I guess my friends pulled him off of me, and he had pulled a knife out when he was over top of me, and I guess they had gotten him off of me.”

Taylor retrieved a gun from his car once he was kicked out of the bar, but he testified that he did so because he had just snapped out of the blackout and was afraid he couldn’t defend himself.

In a telephone interview, Taylor’s defense attorney Michael Clifford emphasized that the trial had been difficult for both sides but that he and his client were happy with the verdict.

Sue Yacka-Bible, a spokeswoman for the group the advocacy group GLAAD, said that what happened to Harless is unfortunately not an isolated incident.

“LGBTQ people are vulnerable to violence and discrimination in their day-to-day lives, and it is essential that the media put a spotlight on some of the legislative underpinnings of these inequities,” Yacka-Bible said in an email. “Many people don’t realize that in 20 states in the nation, including West Virginia, there are no hate crimes protections for LGBTQ people. Similarly 26 states offer no explicit prohibitions for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in state law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is also calling attention to Taylor’s acquittal.

“What happened to Angel is cruel, inexcusable and highlights the need for greater protections for LGBTQ West Virginians,” said Tim Ward, a spokesman for the ACLU of West Virginia, said in an email. “However, it is important to be cautious about over-criminalizing behavior while also balancing the protection of vulnerable communities. That is why we’ve consistently advocated for restorative justice as a model to heal victims, perpetrators and communities post conviction.”

Representatives for the the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

At the coffee shop at Taylor Books, Harless spoke about how she feels about the lack of hate-crime laws protecting LGBTQ citizens like herself in many states like West Virginia.

“It’s scary and it’s sad,” Harless said. “I feel like my life has less value than someone else’s life just because of who I love. It’s no different than someone loving someone of the opposite sex and our lives are no different than anyone else’s and so I don’t understand why we aren’t the same. I think we should have just as many protections as other minorities. I know we aren’t getting that right now, but I’d like to change that in my state.”

In addition to the possibility of Taylor still facing battery or assault charges in Kanawha Circuit Court, Harless said she plans to bring a civil suit.

“I hope his heart changes one day,” Harless said, her eyes filling with tears. “I just really hope his heart changes.”

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