• When is it NOT a hate crime?

    Author : June 21, 2017

    Hate crimes are not very common, as it is an extra element that state prosecutors have to prove. It’s an element that essentially makes it an aggravated crime, leading to enhanced sentences. The crime is a regular crime, such as assault or murder, but it has to be motivated by some sort of sexual, racial or other prejudice in order for the charges to fit. The discretion of when to charge a crime as a hate crime is a point of contention for a small community in Virginia lately.

    Nabra Hasanen, a 17-year old girl, went missing early in the morning after she and her friends were heading back to their community mosque after having breakfast during Ramadan. The group was on both the sidewalk and the street when Darwin A. Martinez Torres drove up behind them. He got into an argument with a few of the teens, who scattered. Torres allegedly caught up with the group and chased after them with a baseball bat. Nabra was hit by the bat, and Torres put her in his vehicle, according to detectives. He apparently assaulted her again at a second location before dumping her body in a man-made pond a few miles down the road.

    The state claims that the crime was the result of road rage. Mr. Torres became enraged by teenagers in the road, who argued back with him – although they cannot explain why the defendant became so enraged so quickly. There have been no reports that Torres uttered any racial slurs or hateful speech. But Nabra’s relatives believe there is more to the story: she was wearing conservative, Islamic clothing with other Muslims. This case draws parallels to one out of North Carolina in 2015, when three Muslims were killed in a parking lot because of what state officials called an ongoing parking dispute between neighbors.

    Perhaps there is extra sensitivity about violence against Muslims because of recent reports that there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of hate groups against Muslims in America (from 34 in 2015 to over 100 now). It is also significant that the crime came on the heels of of a man who drove a truck through a group of people in London who were returning home from Ramadan prayers. While the police department investigating the crime has said it is not pursuing it as a hate crime, it has made it clear that it will keep all avenues open, particularly if any bias appears to be a factor.

    It is important to note that, in cases like this, there is an extra burden of proof on the prosecution if they choose to pursue anything as a hate crime. If there is no explicit evidence from the crime, such as words said by the defendant, a history or membership of being involved in hate groups, or the like, the state will not likely attempt to construct an element of hate because it will be even more work for them. If their charge of a hate crime is not compelling, it could be a factor affecting the credibility of their entire case as well. Prosecutors are risk averse- no sense in risking a clear case of murder to bring justice to a young woman and her family by trying to create a hate crime when the evidence does not fully point to one.

    Unfortunately, in today’s climate, it seems that the state will have plenty of opportunities to pursue hate crimes, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has monitored an increase in hate crimes, particularly since the 2016 elections. Stories of black people in coffee shops being spat on and called ‘slaves,’ anti-semitic graffiti littering streets and signs, and an assault on a woman by a man who called her a ‘lesbian’ and another slur, seem all too common. The prosecution should reserve its resources and bring crimes for which there is a reason, rather than attempting to fabricate facts, particularly when there seems to be no shortage of the opportunity to try hate crimes.

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