Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Not a Hate Crime?

Apparently, when six whites kidnap a Black woman, hold her hostage for six days and torture her with repeated rapes, choke her with a cable wire, force her to eat excerment and scald her with hot water, it's not a hate crime.

From Keith Boykin, who broke this story over a week ago:
When police arrived at a rickety mobile home in Big Creek, West Virginia on Saturday, they found something that shocked the community. A 20-year-old black woman was being held hostage in the house. She had been kidnapped, tortured and raped for more than a week by a group of six whites, authorities say. The three men and three women who held her captive allegedly beat, stabbed and sexually assaulted the woman while calling her a "nigger."

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia have decided not to file hate charges, a decision that may in part be due to the fact that hate crime convictions carry far lesser punishment than federal statutory offenses. Boyking adds:
The best argument for not pursuing federal hate crimes prosecution is that the state crimes carry tougher sentences if convicted. That's a reasonable argument, but that's often the case, especially in cases of murder and other serious violent crimes. Still that misses the point. The point of hate crimes laws is not to replace the existing law, but to provide an additional basis for charges against the accused. In these cases, society is so outraged by crimes motivated by prejudice that we provide heightened penalties for those who commit such crimes.

What is the point of having hate crime legislation if it's only a slap on the wrist? For crimes such as this one, that carry with it such vile hatred as the impetus for inflicting torture, hate crime legislation needs to be something that not only symbolically pays dues to the the undercurrent of hatred and power that motivates violent crime. Instead, it should work to legally acknowledges the power imbalances in this society, and uses its boundaries to provide a space in which that power is challenged and, in some vague way, justice is served.

But hell, with OJ's alleged robbery making front page news, I should know better than to think justice exists for Black folks in this country.


Brother Smartness said...

"Williams was not a random target, prosecutor Brian Abraham said Wednesday. She had a "social relationship" with one of the suspects, he said."

It doesn't change the fact that it was heinous and deplorable, but it would prove difficult for a prosecutor to argue and establish that a crime was committed because of her race.

Ima said...

how would it prove difficult to argue that this crime was committed because of her race? Think of it this way -- a bunch of guys, beat up/rape/and torture a gay man all the while calling him a faggot, do you think the prosecutor would really say "oh they just didn't like the guy but it has nothing to with the fact that he's homosexual."


i read the comments on, about how the story should be more about this woman and not her color because it's completely irrelevant. whatever, the fact of the matter is she was attacked because of her race even if she had a "social relationship" with one of the predators.

i hope they throw those disgusting people where they belong and KEEP them there. Especially since they've all had prior violent offenses.

And I pray for Meghan.

Brother Smartness said...

Couple things:

First, in that quotation, Boykin is speculating as to why the hate crime statute wasn’t added. I’m under the impression that the information about the “social relationship” with the defendant didn’t become available until after he had written his piece.

That being said, what he offers as “the best argument for not pursuing federal hate crimes prosecution” isn’t really “the best argument” anymore. And I genuinely believe that had he known this information, his reflection would have been a little different.

Second, my heart goes out to this girl, but again, it’s a tricky case to prosecute as a hate crime given the nature of her relationship with one of the defendants.

You’d have to prove intent.

Consider the following:

Jane has a social relationship with Jenny. Jane is driving down a road, sees John (her boyfriend) walking with Jenny and kills the later by running her over.

This could constitute voluntary manslaughter or reckless manslaughter. But that would depend on whether or not the prosecution could prove Jane’s intent.

An argument for reckless manslaughter could be the following:
Jane knew Jenny and played softball with her. She never wanted to kill Jane but instead wanted to scare her. They always played pranks on one another.

An argument for voluntary manslaughter would require intent:
John feared for Jenny’s life because Jane would joke that if she ever found John with another woman, she would kill her. Jane once beat up a girl for talking to John. John has a platonic friendship with Jane's friend and noticed that pranks were getting more precarious. Jane kept a diary in which she had written of her desire to murder Jenny in John’s presence to punish John for his infidelity.

In order for prosecutors to prove that the W. Va case was a hate crime, they’d have to prove certain elements that might be difficult given the relationship the victim had with the defendant. In other words, if the perpatrator knew the defendant, it might be a little more difficult to prove that he did it because she was black if there is another motivation for the crime, i.e. they used to date and they broke up, he had a crush on her and she didn't requite the love. (Much like the difficulty in proving a crime was committed out of jealousy rather than being a prank gone bad.)

While the n-word might normally be the perfect indicator of a hate crime when parties have no relation whatsoever, familiarity complicates matters when you’re trying to convict someone for their bad thoughts about someone whom they were cordial with prior to the crime.

The proliferation of the n-word in popular music and its many connotations could make it even more difficult to prove how it was said given their “social relationship”, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion right there.

So unfortunately, the use of the n-word is quickly becoming insufficient to prove racist intent (especially when you have the familiarity element).

Third, the whole statutory maximum argument isn’t as significant as the papers have made it out to be.

Though there are some instances where indictments have only one count, an indictment usually has several counts. If a defendant is convicted of all counts, the judge has the option of running them consecutively or concurrently. So prosecutors didn’t drop the hate crime count because the other counts got higher sentences. They probably dropped it because they found that it would be difficult count to convict because of whole “social relationship” thing. (Disclaimer: I'm speculating here)

I’m a big fan of hate crime laws as they were conjured up by legislatures. You run the risk of taking justice down a slippery slope when you try to convict people for their thoughts, but it’s a necessary thing in today’s world where our growing knowledge of the psychology of humans enables us to convict perpetrators of crimes that are more and more complex. A law professor once told me that you know when a crime is a hate crime because the perpetrator will leave you ample evidence to come to that conclusion. That rule of thumb won't apply when all the evidence we have is the information provided to us by the press. But it could very well stand true once we know all the facts of the case. So before we jump the gun and say it is definitely a hate crime, we have to hold off until the evidence is all in and we know the true nature of this “social relationship.”