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La Crosse District Attorney’s Office Adds Hate Crime Charge In Attack On Transgender Teens

Prosecutors Initially Filed Charges Without Identifying Attack As Hate Crime, Prompting Calls For Change From Local Officials, LGBTQ Advocates

Gavel and books on a desk
Joe Gratz (CC)

The La Crosse County District Attorney’s Office has now filed hate crime charges against the man who allegedly attacked two transgender teens in a public park.

Officials added the hate crime enhancement to felony battery charges against Travis Crawford of La Crosse on Thursday. He also faces felony bail jumping charges.

The criminal complaint said Crawford approached a teen couple in Copeland Park on Tuesday, July 20 and started yelling at them. The complaint said Crawford called them an anti-gay slur before he punched one of the teens in the face and kicked him while he was on the ground. The report identifies the victim as a juvenile and transgender boy. The police officer who responded noted in the report that the victim’s girlfriend was also transgender and that Crawford referred to the couple as “queer” when talking with the officer.

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The original charges did not include hate crime charge, which allows prosecutors to seek increased penalties. That prompted La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds and LGBTQ community groups to call for a change to state law to include gender identity as a protected class.

Assistant District Attorney Jessica Skemp said prosecutors did discuss whether the enhancement would be appropriate in the case, but decided to file the initial complaint without it because they are able to amend charges.

“A lot of times when we evaluate charges, we know that we have to get a process going and there are some decisions that we can put off until later,” Skemp said. “That gave us the extra time to really take some time to do legal research, I think in this case we talked to the victims, and make a more reasoned decision while still not delaying the process of the case.”

Skemp said the use of an anti-gay slur doesn’t automatically mean an attack can be charged as a hate crime and that prosecutors have to be able to show that the defendant was motivated by prejudice.

But she said prosecutors are confident after reviewing the case that they can show the attacker’s motivation was based on his perception of their sexual orientation.

“In this particular case, it had to do more with the person’s subjective beliefs rather than the actual facts of how those victims identified,” Skemp said.

Alesha Schandelmeier is executive director of The Center: 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection in La Crosse. She said she was happy to see the updated charges.

“We’re just really pleased that the DA’s office listened to the community and what those children needed,” Schandelmeier said. “I don’t think, without people speaking up and speaking out, this would have happened.”

Schandelmeier said she hopes the community response to the incident and calls for change to state hate crime laws will help members of the LGBTQ community feel like they can trust the justice system to protect them.

“I would love to see that people start reporting (this kind of attack). Things can’t continue to change if we don’t know what needs to change, and I’m really proud of the kids for coming forward,” Schandelmeier said.

La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds said he’s pleasantly surprised by prosecutors’ decision to pursue hate crime charges. But he said it doesn’t take away from the need to change state statue to protect transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

“It doesn’t change the fact that there is significant room here for our state lawmakers to make adjustments to our antiquated, arcane state statutes in relation to hate crimes, just so that there is protection for all of those who are attacked for who they are,” Reynolds said.

After Reynolds’ initial call for change, state Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, and state Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, issued statements in support of adding protections for gender identity. But Reynolds said he won’t be satisfied until lawmakers actually change the law.