The arrest of two Alabama siblings for allegedly blackmailing at least a dozen victims by threatening to reveal their sexual orientation and calling in bomb threats to their churches and jobs in an effort to intimidate them, highlights the shortcomings of state's hate crime law.
Jvell Hurt, 25, and Whitney Hurt, 23, are both facing charges of extortion and making terrorist threats in Tuscaloosa County after they threatened to out several men after obtaining private pictures of them, according to The Tuscaloosa News.
The duo relentlessly called, texted, and emailed the victims until they agreed to pay to keep their sexual orientation private, authorities said.
In one instance, the duo demanded one victim deliver $2,100 to their home or else they would “end him,” according to court documents. They also harassed the victim’s friends and family over the phone in order to pressure them into bringing the money before the victim eventually complied.
Authorities also alleged that Jvell Hurt called in a bomb threat to First United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa last September on a Sunday morning when the building was filled with worshipers in order to harass one of the victims who was a member of the church.
Hurt pulled the same tactic earlier this month on a different victim by calling the University of Alabama School of Nursing, where he works. He also called the man’s supervisor and other co-workers in an attempt to extort him over his sexual orientation.
Authorities said there may be more victims going back several years in the duo's extortion plot and the investigation is ongoing.
Experts say cases like this highlight the need for hate crime laws that protect LGBTQ victims, mainly because they are class of people who have fallen prey to a host of attacks on every front.
Alabama, along with 14 other states has a hate crime law that does not address sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Human Rights Counsel.
“Hate crime victims are always terrified of coming forward because they bear the weight of the crime not just directed towards them but they are also concerned about fellow members of their community being targeted, so you need to make really safe space for people to come forward and report these crimes, and if you don’t even have a law in the books, you’re not getting there,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After conducting data analysis of FBI hate crime statistics for 15 years, the SPLC found that the LGBTQ community was the most targeted “by far,” she said.
While the duo has been charged with hefty crimes, they have not been charged with hate crimes because Alabama's current law does not include the LGBTQ community as a protected class.
The political dynamics are very much against being able to add protections to the LGBTQ community because of the bigotry surrounding the community, particularly in the south, Beirich said.
“There have been many attempts to broaden the hate crime stature and it fails every time.”
But other experts add that although hate crime laws are helpful, they are not the only the only way to help this community from being preyed upon.
“It is a helpful tool for law enforcement to address violence against LGBTQ people, but hate crimes laws in and of themselves are not the solution,” said Richard Saenz, a senior attorney for Lambda legal, an LGBTQ civil rights organization.
There should be resources made available to the community to help build relationships with police officers, he said. If an LGBTQ person is reporting a crime against them, it should be taken seriously so the community feels safe to report these crimes, he added. Law enforcement and prosecutors must also show a commitment to pursue these cases.
Saenz added that from the facts at hand it appears that this crime would likely fall under a hate crime statute.
Including the LGBTQ community within a protected class in a hate crime statute would certainly send a statement that the state is serious about protecting individuals who are targeted because of their sexual orientation, Beirich said.
“When statehouse votes and governor signs something that says this population deserves to be protected, that is a public acknowledgement of support,” she said. “And that matters.”