WASHINGTON — Four and a half months after her daughter and granddaughter were found slain while visiting Yosemite National Park, Carole Carrington appealed to Congress on Wednesday to step up federal efforts to fight hate crimes, including those that target women.
"I'm here to tell you my story," she told the House Judiciary Committee. She contended that her daughter, granddaughter and a family friend were killed "simply because they were women," describing the three as victims of a hate crime.
Seated at a table alongside legal scholars and high-ranking Justice Department officials, the Northern California resident recounted the disappearance of her daughter, Carole Sund, 42; granddaughter Juliana, 15; and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16; the search for them and the discovery of their bodies.
Cary Stayner, a 37-year-old handyman, has confessed to killing the three tourists in February and Joie Ruth Armstrong, a 26-year-old female park employee, in July, sources familiar with the case have said.
"He claims to have fantasized about killing women for the last 30 years," Carrington said of the suspect.
"I am not a political person, nor did I ever expect to be sitting before Congress testifying about hate crimes," she told the panel. "We have involuntarily become part of a club of families whose women and girls have disappeared, some never found, some found murdered."
In an interview after the hearing, she said: "I do feel this was a hate crime. What else could it be? A man who does not know the people at all and murders them only because they're women."
Carrington's testimony came as supporters of a federal hate crime bill, including President Clinton, called on the House to join the Senate in passing such legislation. "If we work together, we have it within our grasp to enact a bill that will take a very strong stand against those who perpetrate crimes based on prejudice and hate," Clinton said in a statement issued Wednesday. "We must not let this opportunity pass by."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, has introduced a bill to give the federal government a stronger hand in investigating and prosecuting offenses committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender or disability. Clinton said the legislation should provide for state and local authorities to prosecute the majority of hate crimes, and "federal jurisdiction should be exercised only when it is necessary to achieve justice."
Current law gives federal authorities the right to investigate and prosecute only hate crimes motivated by bias against a person's race, religion or national origin. Critics of hate crime legislation say it is not necessary because such crimes are already prosecuted under existing criminal provisions.
No date has been set for a hearing on Conyers' bill, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has not taken a position on the measure.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. told the committee that gender-based hate crimes would not, under the legislation, result in federal prosecution of all sexual assaults or acts of domestic violence. The legislation would "strictly limit federal investigations and prosecutions of violent, gender-based hate crimes, especially since federal prosecutors will have to prove not only that the perpetrator committed the act but also that the perpetrator did so because of gender-based bias."
Supporters of the legislation believe it stands a good chance of passage in the wake of a string of incidents, including the recent killing of a gay couple in a rural Northern California community near Redding and the dragging death of a black man in Texas.
Among those questioning the need for legislation was Daniel E. Troy, associate scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, who told the committee that it "further balkanizes American society along racial and ethnic lines" and "punishes thought in a manner at odds with the 1st Amendment."
"If our criminal laws are not tough enough to satisfy our communal need for justice, by all means let us make them tough," Troy said.
But Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian political organization, said in an interview that hate crimes are a form of "domestic terrorism," targeted not just against an individual but against a group.
Carrington, who was invited to appear by Democratic committee members, did not address specific legislation but spoke generally about the need for the federal government to provide resources for finding missing women and girls and prosecuting their assailants.
"You cannot bring my daughter and granddaughter back," she said. "You can, however, make a commitment to all families that hate-based violence against their loved ones will be taken seriously by passing tough legislation that makes the necessary federal resources available."
Speaking of the victims, she added: "At least now we know they are at peace, and we are trying to go forward and do something positive."