Atlanta Spa Shootings Pose Test for Hate-Crime Laws

Atlanta Spa Shootings Pose Test for Hate-Crime Laws

Six of the victims that 21-year-old

Robert Aaron Long

allegedly gunned down in the Atlanta area were women of Asian descent. But whether the shootings constitute a hate crime remains an open question for investigators.

Proving a hate crime isn’t just about the identity of the victims but also the suspect’s motives and state of mind—specifically, whether an accused assailant targeted people because of their race and gender or other characteristics covered by state and federal hate-crime statutes.

Hate-crime laws enable prosecutors to punish bias-motivated crimes more severely. While local authorities are responsible for prosecuting most homicides, the U.S. Justice Department can assume a major role investigating and prosecuting a killing involving alleged bias.

Mr. Long is charged with eight counts of murder in connection with Tuesday evening’s shooting spree at three spas. The rampage left eight people dead—one man and seven women, including six women of Asian descent.

Atlanta police have said they are investigating whether the killings constituted hate crimes.

What are Georgia’s laws about hate crimes?

Like nearly all states, Georgia has its own hate-crime law. Last year, Gov.

Brian Kemp

signed a bill that imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

The Georgia legislature approved the bill in the wake of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man. Defendants convicted of a felony would face at least an extra two years in prison if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they intentionally selected any victim or group of victims out of bigotry. Less than a year old, the law remains untested.

Atlanta police officers and detectives visited the crime scene at Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa in Atlanta on Tuesday.



Photo:

Alyssa Pointer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Zuma Press

What are the federal laws on hate crimes?

At the federal level, hate crimes are spelled out in Section 249 of the main U.S. criminal code.

Congress established the crimes in 2009 when it enacted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Congress’s authority to pass the statute arises from the 13th Amendment and its promise of eradicating all the “badges and incidents of slavery.” The statute criminalizes violence committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin of the victim.

A second provision outlawing hate crimes based on gender and other personal characteristics flows from Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce. As such it requires an additional element, a broadly defined linkage to commerce, such as assaulting a victim who was engaged in commercial activity at his or her place of work.

A federal hate crime in which death results can be punished by a life sentence.

Recent federal hate prosecutions include the case of Grafton E. Thomas, the man charged in the machete attacks at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, N.Y. Federal authorities also used Section 249 in the charges against Patrick Crusius, an anti-immigrant gunman accused of killing 22 people at a

Walmart

in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. Both men pleaded not guilty.

A federal prosecution for a hate-crime murder wouldn’t necessarily preclude a subsequent state hate-crime prosecution. Even if local authorities don’t request federal prosecution, the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation can still intervene if the U.S. attorney general decides it would be “in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.”

It couldn’t be determined what role the Justice Department might play in the investigation.

“We are still playing an assistance role with the local investigations. If, in the course of the local investigations, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate,” said Kevin Rowson, a spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta field office.

Eight people, many of them women of Asian descent, were killed in three shootings at massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Police have identified and detained a suspect. Photo: Mike Stewart/Associated Press
What evidence is needed to prosecute a hate crime?

Federal hate-crime laws require proof that violence was committed because of the victim’s identity. Though the incidents are called “hate crimes,” the law doesn’t require evidence of anger or rage toward a protected class of people.

What is known so far about Mr. Long’s mind-set comes from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. The suspect said he attacked the spa businesses not out of any animus for Asian-Americans but in retaliation “for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex,” according to the sheriff’s office.

Mr. Long’s statement to the sheriff’s office may not be the last word on his motives. In past hate-crime prosecutions, investigators have pored through suspects’ online comments and journals to establish motivation.

Write to Jacob Gershman at jacob.gershman@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Source: WSJ – US News

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