The head of a disability-rights network said the slaying of Jennifer Daugherty could qualify as a federal hate crime under a law recently revamped to protect people with disabilities.
"This sounds like something that could easily rise to that level," said Curtis Decker, executive director of the Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C., citing the torture police said Ms. Daugherty suffered before her death.
Six people have been charged in the death of Ms. Daugherty, 30, of Mount Pleasant, who was stabbed repeatedly, painted with nail polish, fed items such as detergent and urine and bound with Christmas decorations.
Family members said at a news conference Friday that the friendly, trusting Ms. Daugherty had a mental disability, and her stepfather, Bobby Murphy, said she had the mental faculties of a 12- to 14-year-old.
Robert Cessar, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said federal authorities would evaluate the case to determine whether it meets the criteria for a hate-crime prosecution.
President Barack Obama signed an expansion of the hate crimes law in October.
The changes attracted attention mostly because they extended protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, but the law also was expanded to include crimes based on a person's gender or disability. Mr. Decker said he pushed for the latter provision for about a dozen years.
Dropped from the law was a requirement that the victim be participating in a federally protected activity, such as voting, when the crime occurred.
Prosecutors must show the violence was directly related to the victim's disability in order for the act to qualify as a hate crime, Mr. Decker said. For example, he said, an attacker's animus might be revealed in epithets uttered during the crime.
In October, the U.S. Justice Department released what it called the "First National Study on Crime Against Persons with Disabilities."
The study showed that people with disabilities who were between the ages of 12 and 19 and 35 and 49 were more than twice as likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled people in the same age groups, and people with mental disabilities were more often victimized than people with other kinds of disabilities. Nearly 20 percent of victims interviewed said they "believed that they became a victim because of their disability," the Justice Department said.
Mr. Decker, whose network of state affiliates provides legal and advocacy services, said the federal law may bring stiffer penalties for some crimes than state laws. However, he said, a major reason for including disability in the revamped law simply was to have federal authorities monitoring crimes against people with disabilities.
Sometimes, he said, the crimes go unprosecuted because local police or prosecutors doubt that people with mental disabilities will make good witnesses. In other cases, he said, offenses against people with disabilities are dismissed as crimes of opportunity when animus is the true motive.
Mr. Decker said he's not yet heard of a case in which the revamped law has been used in a crime involving a disabled person, but he said the Justice Department is just beginning to train staff members on the changes. He said he would bring Ms. Daugherty's killing to the attention of his department contacts.
Joe Smydo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548. The Associated Press contributed.