On Friday, it was announced that Mable and Alexis Jenkins, both 19, plead guilty to aiding and abetting their male cousins in the kidnapping and assault of a gay man, Kevin Pennington, in April 2011.

The two women admit they helped lure Pennington into a pickup truck with David Jenkins, 37, and Anthony Jenkins, 20, the first people to be indicted under a new federal hate-crimes statute’s sexual-orientation provision.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, enacted in 2009, criminalizes violence motivated by a victim’s real or perceived race, sex, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. If convicted, the men could face life in prison.

On Thursday, David and Anthony were indicted on federal hate-crime charges in a London, Kentucky, courthouse after pleading not guilty. According to earlier reports, Pennington, 28, had angered Mable and David by refusing to date either of them. The foursome took Pennington “to go riding around for cigarettes and soda,” but wouldn’t let him out of the truck when he asked.

While one of the male Jenkins searched for a tire iron and one of the girls agreed to help throw Pennington’s corpse over the mountainside after they killed him, Pennington jumped over a cliff, hid behind a rock and waited 45 minutes for them to leave. He was left with a torn ear, a torn shoulder ligament, boot marks on his body and gravel embedded into his face

The victim told investigators that David Jenkins demanded sexual favors and threatened to violently rape Pennington when he refused. After they pulled over, Anthony and David began hitting Pennington while screaming, “How do you like this, faggot?”

Michael Cole-Schwartz of HRC called the indictment “vindicating” after years of working to get the Shepard-Byrd Law passed, but David Jenkins’ lawyer, Andrew Stephens, says his client denies committing a hate crime. “The hate-crime component of this is just flat wrong,” says Stephens. “I think it’s very difficult to get into the mind of somebody and figure out what their intent is.”

We’re sure Stephens is the worst kind of good-old-boy Southern lawyer and that the Jenkins boys picked on Pennington (left) because he was gay. But doesStephens have a point? Can we get into the mind of a criminal and know exactly why he committed a crime? Is one reason worse than another? Isn’t attacking someone out of sheer sadism just as bad as doing it out of homophobia, as Bill Keller suggests in a New York Times op-ed?

Or as Politico writer William Yeomans posits, do hate-crime laws act as shield for groups that are disproportionately terrorized. And do they allow the federal government to step in when local authorities might want to forget the whole thing happened? Do we need them to protect (and avenge) the Kevin Penningtons and Trayvon Martins of the nation?

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