Charges for accused mass shooter could include hate crimes, experts say

Deadly spa shootings: Suspect had ‘issues’ with sexual addiction, planned to carry out more attacks, mayor says
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Deadly spa shootings: Suspect had ‘issues’ with sexual addiction, planned to carry out more attacks, mayor says

Georgia hate crimes law strong, says former U.S. attorney from Atlanta.

While the investigation continues into the shooting spree Tuesday that killed eight people at three metro Atlanta spas, experts agree there appears to be enough for prosecutors to charge the accused shooter with a hate crime.

According to law enforcement, Robert Aaron Long, 21 of Woodstock, admitted to the shootings, claiming he was addicted to sex and killed the women in the spas to eliminate temptation. Of the eight people killed, seven are women and all but one of those appear to be of Asian descent.

David Barkley, senior Southeast counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said Georgia’s new hate crimes law includes crimes related to biological sex and gender identity as well as race, religion and national origin. If Long targeted women because of his alleged sex addiction, that’s a hate crime, he said.

To make that determination, investigators will be looking at social media posts and what he may have said to friends and family about women, Barkley said.

“That’s all relevant to determining whether his real motivation was to target women,” he said.

Jessica Cino, a law professor at Georgia State University, said that “deep dive” into Long’s background will determine whether the shootings meet the criteria to charge him under the state law. However, Cino said the state hate crime law, which became law last summer, is broadly constructed.

“His statement (about sex addiction) doesn’t prevent the prosecution prosecuting this as a hate crime based on gender or race,” she said.

The state statute does rely on local law enforcement to submit what is called a “bias crime report” as part of the investigation. Some authorities involved in the investigation have signaled there’s not enough evidence yet to make that call.

“During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated,” Cherokee Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”

Cino said the bias report could come from any of the multiple jurisdictions involved in the shooting spree, which include Cherokee County and the city of Atlanta.

“You may have a little bit more progressive view of the application of hate crime law for the ones that were in Atlanta city limits,” she said. “There is more a historical underpinning within the city limits of Atlanta to investigate it as a hate crime.”

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03/17/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Flowers and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

03/17/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Flowers and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial outside of the  Gold Spa in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 17, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/17/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Flowers and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Case being watched closely

Pressure already is mounting to determine whether Long will be charged with a hate crime.

“We’re not sure of his real motives, but it sounds like a hate crime,” said Sunny Park, an Atlanta businessman and president of the American Korean Friendship Society. “There were lots of places he could go and kill other people, but he chose to go where there were Asian women.”

Deputy Korean Consulate General Kwangsuk Lee said at least four of the women killed were of Korean descent. The consulate was aware of the increased threat of hate crimes nationally against Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage and met with Gwinnett County Police virtually during the first week of March “to ask for cooperation to prevent any kind of hate crime incidents,” Lee said.

The consulate was still waiting to hear from police if the shootings are considered hate crimes, he said.

BJay Pak, a Korean American lawyer and politician who stepped down as U.S. Attorney in Atlanta in January, said the primary focus should be on the victims.

“But let’s not forget about the context in which the shooting occurred and why it will have such a big impact on Asian Americans in Georgia and nationwide,” Pak said. “This shakes us to the core.”

He said “perpetual stereotypes of Asian-Americans make us vulnerable to being victimized” and praised the state’s hate crimes law, adopted by Georgia lawmakers last year after about two decades of debate. As a Republican state legislator, Pak sponsored a version of the proposal.

“The federal version makes it difficult to get a conviction on the hate crimes law. The state version is stronger, and gives law enforcement officials another tool,” he said.

Pak said prosecutors absolutely should charge Long with a hate crime if the evidence is there.

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BJay Pak is the former U.S. Attorney for Northern District of Georgia (NDOGA) and a former Georgia legislator of Korean descent. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

BJay Pak is the former U.S. Attorney for Northern District of Georgia (NDOGA) and a former Georgia legislator of Korean descent. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
BJay Pak is the former U.S. Attorney for Northern District of Georgia (NDOGA) and a former Georgia legislator of Korean descent. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Expert: ‘classic misogyny’

Mia Bloom, an expert of terrorism and extremism at Georgia State University, said the shooting spree is similar to last year’s deadly attack against an erotic spa in Toronto by a 17-year-old “incel,” shorthand for the violently misogynistic subculture of “involuntary celibates.” Incels blame woman for perceived sexual rejection and the ideology has been behind a number of violent attacks against women.

Bloom said the details of Long’s motivations are not entirely clear, but targeting women because of a man’s uncontrolled sexual impulses is “classic misogyny.”

“He had to shoot these women because, of course, he is not responsible for his own addiction,” she said.

The picture might be even more complex, Bloom said. There is overlap among incels with white supremacy and conspiracy theories like QAnon, she said.

“The larger part of the (incel) community is diverse and people move from ideology to ideology,” she said.

Within hours, news of the shooting spree had become fodder on fringe white supremacist forums, with some cheering the slayings in stark racial terms.

Under state law, Long could face the death penalty regardless of whether the killings are regarded as hate crimes. But ADL attorney Barkley said applying the hate crime statute on top of other charges sends an important signal.

“The fact that you are charging the hate crime ... gives a sense of closure to the victim, the victim’s community and a strong message from the government that targeting people due to their community is unacceptable,” he said. “We would urge the local prosecutor to bring hate crime charges along with the other charges.”

Staff writers Shelia Poole, Adrianne Murchison and Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

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