As they raped her, tortured her, beat her and forced her to eat animal and human feces, Megan Williams says her captors told her: “This is what we do to niggers down here.”
Why this is not a hate crime defies explanation.The decision by West Virginia prosecutors not to charge a hate crime in Williams’ abduction and assault does not surprise Veronica Garcia.
As director of the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, a private advocacy group that is part of a national coalition, Garcia has been down this road too many times. Based on victims’ reports to CAVP, a lot more hate crimes take place than get charged, she said. The craziness in West Virginia is just the latest example.
Prosecutors in that state say defendants already face charges that could bring them life in prison. Adding hate crime charges, the West Virginia prosecutors say, will complicate their case without adding additional punishment.
Garcia says that that reading of hate crimes law ignores the reasons those laws were passed in the first place. Hurting someone merely because they come from a different race, religion or sexual orientation constitutes an act of malice that demands specific recognition.
Prosecutors, said Garcia, sometimes don’t get how important it is to send communities this message.
The people of West Virginia are hardly the only folks who need to understand. Prejudice exists everywhere.
Two years ago, Garcia and her group battled unsuccessfully to have a hate-rimes charge added to charges against two men who beat to death Kevin Hale, an openly gay man in Montrose. The fatal beating allegedly took place because Hale had made sexual advances toward one of his assailants in a bar. Those facts were in dispute when the two men pleaded guilty to manslaughter to avoid murder trials.
The failure to link the crime to a hatred of homosexuals avoided a badly needed teaching moment.
“The incident,” said Garcia, “was not acknowledged for what it was. After the Kevin Hale case, we saw continued episodes of harassment of the gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgendered community. We saw more hate crimes.”
Tolerance and prevention often seem to get lost in the rush to punishment.
“We worked on a homicide case in Denver,” said Garcia. “The assistant district attorney was hesitant about the hate-crimes piece. He kept saying, ‘But there is no such thing as a love crime.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Hate-crimes charges are unique. While Americans may legally harbor all the bigotry they choose, expressing that hatred as anything from harassment to homicide is not legal.
“Hate-crimes prosecutions send a loud message to the community that that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated,” said Garcia.
Hate-crimes laws usually make sentences stiffer. But in a nation where a black woman can be stabbed and sexually violated for nothing more than her skin color or a gay man can be beaten to death for nothing more than openly expressing homosexuality, hate-crimes laws serve a dual purpose.
A special crime occurs where prejudice empowers a person to think he or she can attack another because the victim is an inferior human being.
Trouble is, it can be a difficult case to make.
“The ACLU is betwixt and between with hate crimes,” said Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “Hate is still free speech. It’s hard to prove that it’s the hate that motivates the crime. There may be expressions of hate during the crime. But you can’t criminalize hate.”
The law, said Hazouri, generally considers bigotry an “aggravator” to a crime, not a crime itself. This is why prosecutors hesitate to use the charge.
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado took a much harder line in the Kevin Hale case.
“The relevant statute provides that a ‘bias-motivated crime,’ in the case of ‘bodily injury to another person,’ is a felony,” the center’s legal director wrote to Montrose prosecutors. “It is clear that a bias-motivated crime in Colorado may be separately charged as a criminal offense.”
A Nov. 3 march in Charleston will try to convince a West Virginia district attorney that he can do the same thing and that it is the right thing to do.
Bruce DeBoskey, director of the Mountain States regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, explained it eloquently.
“Hate crimes,” he said, “are message crimes. The message goes far beyond the individual. It is sent to all people in that category, whether it is race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”
Community leaders must answer back, DeBoskey continued. They must say, “We will prosecute to a different level these hateful message crimes.”
That’s because this debate is about more than laws. It is also about values.