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Hate crime symposium inspired by slaying

| Friday, May 14, 2010

Jennifer Daugherty would be pleased with the attention her tragic death has brought to people like her -- those facing mental or physical challenges, her mother said Thursday.

"I can almost picture her right now, just giggling and clapping her hands," said Denise Murphy of Mt. Pleasant. "It would have made her happy to know that she's doing something, that she's making a difference."

Murphy spoke about her 30-year-old daughter at the conclusion of a symposium held in her memory Thursday in ARC of Westmoreland in Hempfield. The forum focused on issues people with disabilities face, including hate crimes.

Daugherty, who was mentally challenged, was tortured for more than two days, then killed Feb. 10 in Greensburg, authorities said. Her body was discovered the next day inside a trash can left in a snow-covered North Main Street parking lot, about two blocks from the apartment where she was killed, police said.

Six people are charged in her slaying. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck has until June 7 to decide whether he will seek the death penalty against some of the defendants.

Law enforcement officials have not labeled Daugherty's death a hate crime. But after the forum, some participants said they would like acting U.S. Attorney Robert Cessar in Pittsburgh to prosecute it as one.

Murphy, with daughter Jamie by her side, said she and family members have been attending rallies and forums to preserve Daugherty's memory and make people more aware of those with disabilities.

Daugherty, who was in special education classes through high school, had been the target of cruelty before, even as a child, her mother said. Yet Daugherty remained positive and saw the good in others, Murphy said.

Murphy conceded that she knows the feelings that people can have toward those with disabilities. As a child, Murphy had those feelings about her father, who was stricken with polio. Then she had a realization.

"When I was growing up, he was in a wheelchair," Murphy said. "I remember being a little kid and kind of being embarrassed about it, that people would look at us.

"But when I got older, you know, 'This is my dad. I love him. He may not be able to walk, but he did more with us than a lot of other people's parents had done.'"

Her daughter had that same spirit, Murphy said. She loved to sing, dance and greet each day with a smile.

Bill Chrisner of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania said people need to stop using derogatory language and labels for people with disabilities.

"People are human beings first," he said. "Their disabilities are a normal part of who they are, but just a part. They're (the disabilities) not who they are."

Cessar noted that a Department of Justice report showed that in 2007, people with disabilities had a more than 50 percent greater chance of being a crime victim than a person without a disability.

Several speakers urged those attending the forum to support legislation to give Pennsylvania a hate-crime law. Such a measure passed in the Legislature in 2002, but was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2008, speakers said.

Cessar didn't say yesterday whether he would try to prosecute the Daugherty case under a new federal hate-crime statute -- or if it would qualify as such -- but he as said in the past that he was considering it.

Nancy Murray, president of ARC of Greater Pittsburgh, said she would like to see the Daugherty case handled as a hate crime.

"Jennifer was a vulnerable young lady with a disability and, personally and professionally, I believe the people who allegedly committed this crime ... targeted her because of her vulnerability," she said after the forum.

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