John Pfeiffer watched Kathryn Knott’s sentencing from the courtroom last week. He and his friends followed the case closely since October 2014, when Knott, Philip Williams and Kevin Harrigan brutalized two gay men in Center City. Up until the sentence was read by Judge Roxanne Covington, they figured Knott’s punishment would be light, something like probation and community service, the proverbial slap on the wrist.
“None of us thought for a moment she would go to jail,” Pfeiffer said.
Knott got at least five months in prison and as much as 10, plus probation. So surprising was the sentence that a stranger came up to Pfeiffer, 65, in the courtroom afterwards, looked at him with a face on the verge of tears and told him he couldn’t believe what he had just seen.
It was seen as an accomplishment, an occasion where the punishment actually fit the crime. Covington even made remarks about two of her gay friends who were about to get married and how she thought of them when she thought of the two victims in the case.
“That never would have been commented on in my day,” Pfeiffer said. “People wouldn’t admit having gay friends.”
By other measurements, Philadelphia and especially Pennsylvania remain far behind. It took Knott’s attack — not decades of assaults and even murders of LBGT people– to push the city to change its code and allow for stricter punishments for these types of crimes. Since its inception in 2014, the ordinance hasn’t been used by the District Attorney’s Office, and its usefulness has been questioned because Pennsylvania doesn’t count crimes committed based on someone’s sexual orientation and gender identity as hate crimes. The change in Philadelphia had been enacted with the hope Pennsylvania would soon follow. But with bills stuck in committee, the Pennsylvania legislature appears to be far from acting.
“People in Pennsylvania need to understand how far behind the state is,” said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania wasn’t always behind. It expanded its Ethnic Intimidation Act in 2002 to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. But the law was reversed six years later when the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for having been unlawfully placed in an agricultural-terrorism bill. Governor Ed Rendell said back then he wanted the legislature to reinstate the protections immediately.
Eight years later, nothing has happened. Pennsylvania, according to the Human Rights Campaign, is the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t address sexual orientation in its hate crime laws. After the Center City gay bashing, legislators Brendan Boyle and Larry Farnese introduced House and Senate bills, respectively, to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the hate crimes statute, but the bills were never called for a vote, despite bipartisan support, including from then-Governor Tom Corbett.
“They are moved by it and they move on,” Martin said. “I think in this case it is exactly what happened. It’s a constant pressure that needs to be applied.”
A bill put forth by State Rep. Kevin Boyle calling for changes to Pennsylvania’s hate crime law is in committee, as is the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, which would update the state’s nondiscrimination laws. Similar bills to the Fairness Act have been discussed or put forth — and with bipartisan support — for about a dozen years, but Republican Rep. Darryl Metcalfe, a well-known opponent of gay rights, has recently prevented them from either getting out of the State Government Committee or going to the floor for a vote.
So far the only change since the gay attack has been in Philadelphia. It changed its city code to allow for prison sentences of up to 90 days for people who commit crimes based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identification. In the year and a half since, the ordinance has not been used, despite two high-profile incidents. Last May, transgender woman London Chanel was killed in a fight in North Philadelphia. In October, transgender woman Kiesha Jenkins was robbed and killed in Hunting Park in a crime for which police say there’s no evidence she was targeted because of her gender identification.
Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for D.A. Seth Williams, said the D.A.’s office sees the value in the ordinance but hasn’t found it could be applied for any crime the office has charged yet.
“We charge with the tools we can,” he said, “and the D.A. is very concerned with making sure everyone is treated equally under the law.”
Covington, the judge, and Mike Barry, Knott’s prosecutor, both made comments during the sentencing hearing about the state not including crimes against the LGBT community as hate crimes as being improper.
Cletus Lyman, a Philadelphia attorney who has worked on LGBT rights cases, said he considered Philadelphia’s additional punishment for crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity a bad law. He didn’t see how a 90-day sentence could deter prospective criminals from making choices like those guilty of the Center City gay attack and thought penalties for most crimes are harsh enough. Knott, Williams and Harrigan were all charged with aggravated assault, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years.
“The addition of 90 days to 20 years would not seem to greatly affect the calculus of somebody who’s had too much to drink,” Lyman said.
Lyman differs from many people who support LGBT rights in that he doesn’t think the state needs to address sexual orientation or gender identity in its hate crime laws.
“People’s hateful motivations for doing bad things should be evaluated by a sentencing judge,” he said. “It’s not like the sentencing judge’s hands should be tied by some weak statute.”
Although crimes committed based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be charged as hate crimes in Pennsylvania, police have have been able to investigate them as bias incidents. Bias incidents are defined by police as incidents “committed against a person or property which is motivated by malicious intention because of a person’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sex or sexual orientation.” The data for gender bias crimes is available through the state’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.
Nationally, according to statistics released by the FBI, hate incidents based on sexual orientation rank second in frequency, behind only those based on race. The amount of bias incidents reported in Philadelphia does not match up with what one would expect based on national numbers.
According to the data, only one bias incident based on a person’s sexuality or gender identity occurred in 2014 and none occurred in 2013. On factors including race, religion and ethnicity, 28 bias incidents were reported.
The lone bias incident based on sexuality/gender wasn’t the Center City gay attack. The month of September 2014 featured only one bias incident, and it involved religion. The Center City gay attack was not reported as a bias incident, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting information.
For Pfeiffer, the gay attack brought back vivid memories. A similar thing happened to him in the 1970s. He was on his way to a South Street bar called the Backstage, still dressed in his suit and tie from work. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. Pfeiffer turned around and was punched in the face and three men jumped him, calling him “faggot” and “queer” and telling him he didn’t belong in the neighborhood. He said that when he brought up those words in a discussion with the police officers who gave him a ride to the hospital they started chuckling and stopped asking him questions.
“Men and women of my generation,” Pfeiffer said, “saw no reason to go to the police.”
Things have clearly changed for the LGBT Community in the ensuing decades. But even after the sentencing of Knott, they haven’t changed as much as many proponents of LGBT rights would like.
Anna Orso contributed reporting to this story. This article has been updated to reflect the presence of Rep. Kevin Boyle’s hate crime bill.