Robert Aaron Long, the spa killer, pleaded guilty last week in Cherokee County and received four sentences of life in prison without parole ― plus 35 years.
Some don’t think that’s enough. They say prosecutors deprived the victims’ families of true justice and that Long sidestepped owning up to the real reason for his murder spree in March that killed eight people in Cherokee County and Atlanta. They say he targeted Asian women because of some deep-seated hatred and was let off the hook by the plea deal.
The 22-year-old Long admitted to having a sexual addiction and a deep-rooted shame that collided with strict religious beliefs, so he embarked on a killing spree against those who, in his twisted mind, were his temptresses.
And somehow he’s making up that motive because that’s a more palatable scenario than admitting he’s a bigot? (Six of those killed were women of Asian descent.)
If that’s the case — that he’s fabricating the sex, religion and shame as an excuse to avoid being seen as a racist — then it shows how powerful the societal taboo of prejudice has become: Even admitted mass murderers want to avoid that label.
Or perhaps he was simply telling the truth. Perhaps he would have killed whomever worked in those spas, whether they were Asian, Black, Hispanic or white.
It’s all one sad saga of violence, mental health, justice, bias and societal mores.
Last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted representatives from Asian-American groups saying Long’s sentence was not severe enough and didn’t address the racial elements that made the slaughter happen.
Credit: Steve Schaefer
Credit: Steve Schaefer
“The plea deal was literally a slap in the face to the (Asian American Pacific Islander) community, and we do not believe justice was achieved at the Cherokee County courtroom,” said Michelle Kang of the Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate Crime. “We see there was an obvious racial discrimination against Asian victims’ families in the due process making a plea deal.”
Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said the families of those murdered in her county (two victims were Asian, two were not) agreed with the plea deal to get “closure” in the matter.
Wallace said the FBI spent nearly 500 hours digging into Long’s background to see if his motives were racially motivated. They concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove there was. So, even though the murder charges were a prosecutorial slam dunk, the hate crimes allegations were not.
Long still faces charges in Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis announced fairly quickly after the killings that she’s seeking the death penalty. Last year during the election, candidate Willis told the AJC that she could not foresee a case in which she would seek death. Being against the death penalty was a winning strategy with Fulton’s voters during a summer when justice reform was a hot issue. All the major candidates for DA took such a position.
Death penalty cases — and the often decades of appeals — are long, costly and increasingly rare to obtain, even in Georgia. That’s been especially true since juries now have the sentencing option of life without parole. Only once since 2015 has a Georgia jury handed down a death sentence. That was in Gwinnett County in 2019, when a jury gave it to Tiffany Moss for starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter to death, then trying to destroy the child’s corpse by burning it in a trash can. Moss acted as her own lawyer and put up no defense.
But just two months into Willis’ time in office, Long embarked on his slaughter and she changed her mind. Politically, like her pre-election death penalty stand, Willis’ move might not be a bad one. Most of the population probably will shed no tears at the thought of Long being strapped to a gurney and sent to eternity.
However, there is something else to consider. Just two weeks ago, Willis shook her fist at Fulton County commissioners and demanded money to hire more prosecutors to handle a “historic” backlog in criminal cases. She warned that prisoners who have been held without bond may be released in the upcoming months.
“We’re getting ready to be in a position where we may have to release murderers,” she said. “This is not a Third World country. This is Fulton County,”
The message is unmistakable — some bad people may end up being released and they’ll be committing more crimes.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Meanwhile, Long will remain in prison — forever — no matter how much time, money or energy Willis spends.
Former U.S. Attorney BJ Pak, who is advising the families of two of the Atlanta victims, understands that hate crime charges in murder cases are, practically speaking, moot. “But from a symbolism perspective, it’s not,” he said.
The families he represents, said Pak, “want a trial, they want justice, they want the most severe sentence.”
Pak, a Korean American, added that the families want hate crime charges, and the Asian American “community views this as a crime directed at Asians and women.”
Hate crime legislation has been hanging around the Georgia political and justice scene for a couple of decades. In 2000, then-Gov. Roy Barnes signed a hate crime law in front of a synagogue that had been vandalized. However, the law was purposely written to be vague because some legislators were reluctant to endorse gays as a protected group. A few years later, the state Supreme Court tossed the law.
Last year, in the wake of the shotgun slaying of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, the state passed another hate law. The new law is not a criminal “charge” in and of itself. It acts as an add-on to sentences if a jury determines that a defendant targeted their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability. It could add six to 12 months of incarceration for some misdemeanors or at least two years for a felony.
Hate crimes have long been political football. Critics say they can be arbitrary and border on thought crimes. Proponents say they let the public know that crimes directed at people because of who they are should not be tolerated.
Quantifying what is a hate crime, who are the victims and offenders, and how prevalent they are is tricky and controversial.
An oft-stated factoid is that hate crimes against Asians rose 149% last year. That sounds terrible, and it is, although that stat came from a study that looked at 16 of the nation’s largest cities and found that there were 122 such crimes, up from 49 the year before. Troubling, yes, but not a tsunami.
Dwight Thomas, a veteran Atlanta criminal attorney, understands the idea of hate crimes. “It says that society won’t tolerate this action,” he said, at the same time calling the enhancements in the Georgia law “no more than judicial window dressing.”
Even without the hate crimes law, judges and prosecutors have always had the discretion to stick it to someone who really needs it. For instance, an aggravated assault conviction can fetch anywhere between probation and a 20-year prison term. If you’re a knucklehead who batters someone outside a bar, that’s one thing. Do it to someone leaving a mosque because he’s Muslim, that’s worse. And the xenophobic would get worse than the bar brawler.
“I can understand all the politics to it, but when it’s over, it really adds nothing,” Thomas said. “The judge already had a great amount of leeway to send a message. They’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been practicing.”
But now there’s a name to that process that can make people feel better.
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC