Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Fani Willis on Wednesday holds up images of victims of crimes that would have qualified under a bill state Rep. Meagan Hanson (front row, right) is proposing to create a hate crimes law. Maya T. Prabhu / maya.prabhu@ajc.com

Republican lawmaker proposes creation of hate crimes law for Georgia

A Brookhaven Republican wants to bring Georgia in line with 45 other states by creating a hate crimes law that would enhance penalties for those who target someone based on characteristics such as their race, sexual orientation or religion.

State Rep. Meagan Hanson said it is long overdue for Georgia to have a law on the books that would increase the penalty for someone convicted of the crime.

A 2000 hate crimes law was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”

Hanson was joined during a Wednesday press conference at the statehouse by attorneys, members of law enforcement, representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and a victim of a crime motivated by his sexual orientation.

Fani Willis, deputy district attorney for Fulton County, shared the story of Marquez Tolbert, who in 2016 was in a bed with his boyfriend when Martin Blackwell threw a pot of boiling water on them as they slept. Blackwell then told them, “Get out of my house with that gay —,” Willis recounted.

Though Blackwell, who had been convicted of other crimes in the past, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime, Willis said many hate-motivated crimes are not punished as harshly as she believes they should be.

“The motivation of why someone does something is important,” said Willis, who is running for an open seat on the Fulton County Superior Court. “It’s awful to commit a crime, yes. But you can’t help who you are. Why should they be targeted because of it? I think that’s disgusting.”

Hanson said she is working on final details of the bill, but she indicated it would mirror the federal law in providing protections for race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation. She didn’t say exactly what the new penalties would be, other than that they would be mandatory.

Opponents of hate crime laws say the measures limit their freedom of speech, something Hanson said she doesn’t believe is true.

“The freedom of individuals to do and say what they wish should be protected and secured by the government so long as it does not harm the liberty of others,” she said. “Those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point.”

Matthew Wilson, a gay Democrat who has announced his intent to run against Hanson this fall, said while he welcomes Hanson’s proposal, he questions the timing.

“I hope that this bill becomes law,” he said. “But I think that if you want to carry the flag for human rights, you have to show up in non-election years.”

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