As prosecutors in the United States build a case against the Georgian man accused of murdering eight people, including six women of Asian descent, during a raging shot earlier this month, they could also charge him with an additional hate crime under state law passed in 2020.
But legal experts say the case for a hate crime charge may not be as clear as convicting him for the murders. In order to lay a hate crime charge, prosecutors would be required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooter targeted their victims specifically because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or other factors.
“With insufficient evidence, it would be difficult for prosecutors, whether state or federal, to prove that the suspect intended to murder these women because of prejudice,” said Janice Iwama, professor. assistant at the American University of Washington. DC which studies hate crimes and racial profiling.
Although investigators investigating the case can find more evidence, Iwama said it is currently “not clear whether prosecutors should proceed with a hate crime charge.”
According to prosecutors, Robert Aaron Long, 21, shot dead seven women and one man in three massage parlors occupied by Asian Americans on March 16. accused with eight counts of murder in two counties and one additional count of aggravated assault.
In the aftermath of the shooting, calls to accuse Long of hate crime have increased.
The attack comes at a time when violence against Asian Americans is on the rise and this has led to calls for Long to be charged with a hate crime. A group that tracks assaults on Asian Americans, Stop AAPI Hate, has published a report of nearly 3,800 verbal and physical attacks in the past year.
When the authorities capture For a long time, he did not say he was targeting victims because of their ethnicity, but told investigators that he viewed businesses as sexual temptations that he wanted to eliminate in hopes of alleviating what ‘he described to police as a sex addiction.
When asked at a press conference after the attacks whether the suspect’s violence was motivated by bias, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said officials “can’t take this decision for the moment ”.
Georgia lawmakers past a hate crime law that recently, in the summer of 2020, after a group of white men kill Ahmaud Arbery, 25, a black man jogging in a neighborhood. Prior to that, Georgia was one of four US states that did not have a hate crime law. Wyoming, Arkansas, and South Carolina still don’t.
Georgia’s new law allows prosecutors to seek additional penalties for those convicted of crimes if the victims have been targeted because of their race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Long’s trial could be his first big test.
Hard to prove
In other states, where hate crime laws have been in place for years, securing convictions for them has proven extremely difficult. A ProPublica analysis of hate crime prosecutions in Texas, for example, found that of 981 potential hate crimes reported, only eight resulted in convictions.
“Here, proving the murder is quite easy. It might be harder to prove the extra element to improve hate crimes, ”said Scott McCoy, acting deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This is going to require further investigation.”
If they choose to pursue a hate crime charge against Long, prosecutors will bring them in addition to the underlying charges, said Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Georgia Prosecutor’s Council.
“If a jury finds the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as to the underlying offense, then a separate jury trial is held on the hate crime to determine if there are any factors that would allow the court to first instance to increase the sentence relating to the predicate offense ”Skandalakis said.
“When it comes to proving that the crime was committed because of prejudice or prejudice against a certain category of people, it becomes a little more difficult to prove this issue beyond a reasonable doubt. A prosecutor must prove this bias / prejudice beyond a reasonable doubt by showing the defendant’s motive for committing the underlying crime.
Georgia’s hate crimes law requires a minimum of two years in prison for those convicted in addition to a sentence for other charges. Additional hate crimes sanctions against Long could be used to send an important statement about targeting people because of their race or beliefs, experts have said. If convicted of the murders, Long already faces a life sentence or death sentence under Georgia state law.
“In this situation, a hate crime charge is likely to perform a largely expressive function,” said Janine Young Kim, professor of law at Chapman University in California. “When a hate crimes law is available, the choice of whether or not to use it sends a message to the community. Given that the accused only targeted Asian American companies and this crime is taking place during a period of a surge in anti-Asian incidents, this message is going to be scrutinized very closely.
Prosecutors, however, may be reluctant to prosecute the additional charges if they are unsure that they will be virtually guaranteed a conviction.
Jeannine Bell, a law professor at Indiana University who specializes in the study of hate crimes, said that given the available evidence, Long should “absolutely” be charged, but was skeptical of the idea. to do.
“Hate crimes are difficult for prosecutors, especially prosecutors who are inexperienced with it. They care deeply about their win-lose records. They probably don’t see the value in accusing something like a hate crime if there is still the highest sentence associated with it, ”Bell said.
“It’s more work. A loss on a hate crime charge doesn’t look good to you. “