The U.S. Justice Department is weighing whether to bring a federal hate crimes charge in the June 17 church massacre in Charleston. The announcement has put the spotlight on the lack of a state-level law in South Carolina, as well as in a handful of other states.
News media outlets, including Newsweek and National Public Radio, have reported that South Carolina is one of only five states without a hate crimes law.
PolitiFact Georgia decided to dig deeper into the claim.
First, a little background. The FBI defines a hate crime as a traditional offense, such as murder, arson or vandalism, with the added element that the motivation is a bias based on race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. Nearly 6,000 hate crimes were reported by law enforcement agencies in 2013, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
In Charleston, authorities seemed fairly confident from the beginning that the mass shooting at historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church was a hate crime.
At a press conference on June 18, shell-shocked city officials met with reporters to discuss the nine deaths and announce the arrest of suspect Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old high school dropout and sometimes construction worker who is white. “We believe this is a hate crime; that is how we are investigating it,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
Roof reportedly said after his arrest that he had been out to start a “race war.”
On June 18, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department had opened a federal hate crimes investigation into the church shootings, which she termed a “barbaric crime.”
In media reports that followed, Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana and Wyoming were listed with South Carolina as five states out of 50 that lack a hate crimes law.
Steven M. Freeman, the legal affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League, arguably the biggest advocacy group for these laws, said the list is accurate.
But it’s clearly complicated. Newsweek first reported five states without hate crimes laws, then later revised its report to show only three states, Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina. Michigan provided PolitiFact a copy of its hate crimes law, countering some reports that it belonged on the no-law list.
State hate crimes laws also vary widely. Some states’ laws apply only to sexual orientation, while other states’ laws address biases related to race and gender but not sexual orientation.
Freeman said hate crime prosecution is best left to the states because most crimes are investigated by state or local police. The federal hate crimes law, he said, is meant as “a backstop.”
The federal hate crimes law has enhanced penalties, as do most state laws of this nature. The filing of a federal hate crime charge in the Charleston church slayings could largely be symbolic though, since Roof is already charged with nine counts of murder and South Carolina’s governor has called for the death penalty.
Unlike South Carolina and the other three states, Georgia did have a hate crimes law.
Sponsored by state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, the Georgia General Assembly passed a hate crimes bill in 2000 calling for enhanced prison sentences if a person or a person’s property were victimized “because of bias or prejudice.” It was thrown out as “unconstitutionally vague” in 2004 by the Georgia Supreme Court because it did not specifically outlaw crimes committed based on specific biases related to a victim’s race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation, as laws in other states did.
Fort has tried since the court ruling to pass another hate crimes bill but has been unsuccessful. He said last week that he will try to build on the momentum of Charleston and push for passage of a new law next year.
Charleston brings home the point he was trying to make in 1999 when he first introduced Georgia’s bill, that a hate crime is “terrorism and terrorism is different,” Fort said.
“It ultimately is designed to intimidate, not just one person, but an entire group,” he said. “That is an important lesson out of Charleston. Hate crimes are terrorism. What this man did in that church is nothing less than terrorism.”
Like Fort, Charleston lawmakers have said they are renewing their efforts to establish a South Carolina hate crimes law.
Jeannine Bell, a professor of law at Indiana University at Bloomington and a nationally recognized scholar on the topic of hate crimes, said state hate crimes laws are effective, but not for the reason most people think.
“They are not needed to address hate murders like what occurred in Charleston,” Bell said. “Hate murders are relatively rare.”
The vast majority of hate crimes are low-level crimes that, if not for the hate crimes legislation, would not even be investigated by the police, let alone prosecuted, she said.
The hate crimes legislation provides a way to punish crimes that extremely traumatize the victim and community, Bell said.
She said she believes there is a stigma attached to states without any form of hate crimes legislation.
“Why wouldn’t a state enact legislation that addresses extreme acts of bias directed at its citizens?” Bell asked. “I cannot see any downsides to the legislation.”
But hate crimes laws do raise flags for some.
Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the greatest concern is the threat to free speech, as more speech is declared hate speech. He points to Europe and Canada as prime examples of the dangers of expansive definitions of hate speech.
“Unless carefully defined, these laws can place societies on a slippery slope of speech regulation,” Turley said. “Since there are already laws criminalizing threats and related crimes, civil libertarians have always cautioned legislators about the implications and necessity of such laws.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch has opened an investigation to determine whether a federal hate crimes charge should be brought in the mass church shooting in Charleston in the absence of a state hate crimes law in South Carolina.
The Charleston tragedy has drawn attention to the issue and pointed out that South Carolina is not the only state without a hate crimes law.
News reports indicate that a total of five states don’t have hate crimes laws on the books — including Georgia.
We rate the statement True.
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This story was edited for length. For a full version with all sourcing, please go to: www.politifact.com/georgia/.