The Wages of a Hate Crime

David Ritcheson's wounds finally seemed to be healing. After the Mexican-American teen was beaten nearly to death and sexually assaulted in 2006 by two young men yelling "white power" slogans, he struggled to overcome immeasurable physical and emotional trauma. But there he was in April, testifying at a congressional hearing in favor of hate-crimes legislation, publicly recounting the horror he had endured. Dressed in a smart suit, the cherubic high-school senior from suburban Houston spoke in a clear, strong voice. "I appear before you as a survivor of one of the most despicable, shocking and heinous acts of hate violence this country has seen in decades," Ritcheson said. Yet in the aftermath, "as each day passed, I became more and more aware of everything I had to live for. I am glad to tell you today that my best days still lay ahead of me."

Yet his wounds evidently continued to torment him. On Sunday, Ritcheson, 18, died after leaping from the upper deck of a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico. A trip he'd planned as a summer escape with some buddies ended instead in tragedy. His parents, who flew to Mexico to meet up with the ship, returned to Texas with Ritcheson's body on Thursday. Now the FBI is investigating the circumstances surrounding his death. Among the unconfirmed reports that have already surfaced: that passengers and crew members tried to talk Ritcheson down and set out mattresses to catch his fall; that he was seen drinking in the ship's dance club Saturday night, and that one girl told her mother before Ritcheson's death that she'd overheard a young man mention to his friends that he wanted to jump overboard. Many questions remain unanswered, says the family's attorney, Carlos Leon, but "ultimately, whatever David did that morning was absolutely related to what had happened to him and the pain he was in."

Ritcheson, a popular football player and onetime freshman homecoming prince, endured one of the most brutal hate-crime attacks in recent history. It began one evening in April 2006, when he went out with a new acquaintance, Gus Sons, whom he'd met at an alternative school (Ritcheson had been sent there for fighting at Klein Collins High School in Spring, Texas). The two went to a crawfish festival and then returned to Sons's house with some other boys Ritcheson met for the first time that night to drink vodka and snort cocaine. Among them was David Henry Tuck, a notorious skinhead who terrorized his neighbors with "Heil, Hitler" salutes, once broke the bones of a 51-year-old Hispanic man at a gas station and was locked up in a juvenile detention center for kicking a sheriff's deputy.

At some point, an argument started. The reason remains unclear—perhaps because Ritcheson had stolen some of Sons's drugs, perhaps because he made a drunken pass at Sons's little sister (if the attackers' accounts can be believed), perhaps for no other reason than that Ritcheson is Mexican-American. Tuck knocked Ritcheson unconscious with one crack that broke his jaw, the ER physician who treated him said in court. Then Tuck and his sidekick, Keith Robert Turner, spent the next several hours beating and torturing Ritcheson while shouting "White power!" according to court testimony. They stripped him, burned his skin with cigarettes, poured bleach on his wounds, rammed the end of a patio umbrella into his anus and kicked it with steel-toed boots deep enough to rupture his internal organs, according to witness testimony. They started to carve a swastika in his chest, but some of the onlookers thought that was going too far. Ritcheson told members of Congress that God had spared him the memory of what happened that night, but "today I still bear that scar on my chest like a scarlet letter." Tuck and Turner, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted of aggravated sexual assault; Tuck received a life sentence, while Turner received a 90-year sentence.

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Sons's mother, Christina Sons, found Ritcheson the next morning and called an ambulance. When authorities arrived, Tuck's clothes were still splattered with Ritcheson's blood. Ritcheson spent the next three months in the hospital, where he underwent more than 30 opererations. When he returned to Klein Collins High School this year, he walked the school halls with the help of a cane and the protective presence of his former football teammates. Laticia Galvan, the aunt who raised Ritcheson since he was a baby and whom he called mom, said in court last November, "I didn't think he was going to make it." And if he did, she added, "I wondered if mentally, is he going to be OK?" Her husband, Albert, said, "This will be with us for the rest of our lives. There's no healing."

Yet Ritcheson did seem to be slowly mending himself. Though he refused counseling, his family and friends didn't insist on it because he appeared to be recovering so well, both physically and mentally, says Leon, the family attorney, who grew close to Ritcheson in the last year. "David was very upbeat, in spite of everything that happened to him," says Leon. "He was a very caring guy, and he wanted everyone around him to think that he was happy." Ritcheson sent Leon a text message about a month ago after reaching a medical milestone, a successful surgery that allowed him to ditch the colostomy bag that had made basic bodily functions so difficult and humiliating for him. Ritcheson was about to start a new job this summer and finish the last credits he needed to graduate after missing so much school. "He had plans," says Leon. But in hindsight, Leon adds, Ritcheson "obviously internalized a lot of the pain he was feeling … None of us realized that his struggle was as difficult as it was."

What makes Ritcheson's story all the more heart-rending is that he appeared intent on rehabilitating all aspects of his life, not just the injuries he suffered. Clearly, he'd had troubles before the attack, evidenced by his reported drug use and his school transfer for fighting. "You could see that he was a young man who had made some bad choices in the past," says Mike Trent, the Harris County assistant district attorney who worked closely with Ritcheson to prosecute the case. "But [he] was ready to make something positive of something horrible that was inflicted on him. Unfortunately, it looks like he gave up on that."

Ritcheson's decision to appear before Congress was momentous. Though he hated people associating him with the violence unleashed on him and "he didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him," says Leon, he chose to make such a public appearance because of his commitment to strengthening state and federal hate-crime laws. His own case was never tried as a hate crime, since it didn't fit the federal statutes and under Texas criminal law, first-degree felonies are exempt from hate-crimes provisions.

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The fate of the federal legislation Ritcheson championed—the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, also known as David's Law—remains uncertain. Though it recently passed the House, President George W. Bush has threatened to veto it. At a press conference Tuesday, an array of community leaders joined Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to elicit support for the proposed legislation and to laud Ritcheson's struggle. "David will live as a hero for all to be reminded that hate kills," she said.

The grass in front of Ritcheson's home is matted with white candle wax next to a small shrine of pictures of the smiling teen. A T shirt printed with the words I'M PRAYING FOR DAVID hangs from the mailbox. It is the same T shirt that Klein Collins High School students wore in their vigil for him while he fought for his life in the hospital. Since school is out for the summer, Ritcheson's classmates gathered instead in cyberspace, memorializing him on MySpace pages. "D-Rich Im gonna miss ya homie R.I.P.," wrote longtime friend Kendall Hilliard. In the wake of Ritcheson's death, Klein Collins High School is establishing a "No Place for Hate" program that Ritcheson had lobbied administrators to adopt. Designed by the Anti-Defamation League, it's designed to instill students with tolerance and understanding of diversity. "This crime took place in middle-class America in the year 2006," Ritcheson testified before Congress. "The reality that hate is alive, strong and thriving in the cities, towns and cul-de-sacs of Suburbia, America, was a surprise to me." Perhaps part of his legacy will be to help spread the unsettling truth of that hatred—and drain some of its venom.

The Wages of a Hate Crime | U.S.