NEWS:  Hate crime bill withers, but some say it’s not needed

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Dozens of bouquets lined a sidewalk outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015 after a hate crime in which nine members of the church were murdered by a lone gunman, Dylann Roof.

By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  A House bill seeking to make it a felony to target another person because of race, religion or sexual orientation is withering in committee and will die unless lawmakers return from recess with an appetite for addressing hate crimes.

Five previous iterations of so-called hate crimes legislation in South Carolina have died in committee since 2009. South Carolina is one of five states in the U.S.  without a hate crimes statute.

Advocates say passage would send a clear message that hate crimes are not tolerated. But detractors say there’s no need for such a statute since hate crimes, regardless of motive, can already be punished through existing laws and judges have sentencing discretion.

Cobb-Hunter

“Without hate crimes (statute), it tends to normalize that kind of behavior, and we’re in a climate now that all kind of behavior is being normalized,” said S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the Orangeburg Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Hate crimes are difficult to track. According to a National Crime Victimization Survey, 61 percent of hate crimes are not reported to police. Additionally, some attacks are never proven to be hate crimes or are never prosecuted at all.

On Aug. 18, a Columbia man reported being struck and run off the road while he was driving a moped. The victim, who is black, told police that several white men in a pickup truck veered into him apparently on purpose. Police have called it a hit-and run but, for some, the incident is reminiscent of a woman’s death six days earlier in Charlottesville.

Civil rights activist Kevin Alexander Gray of Columbia said the attack appeared to be a direct response to Charlottesville.

“In a perfect legal world, there would be just one standard and that standard is equal treatment and equal protection and due process of law for everyone equally,” Gray said in an interview. “It’s trying to level the playing field because those conditions I just mentioned don’t exist for a number of reasons.”

Stalled legislation

A proposed hate crimes bill, H. 3196, has been in the House Judiciary Committee since January. It seeks to provide felonious penalties for a person convicted of a hate crime, defined as an intent to assault, intimidate or threaten a person because of race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin or sexual orientation (including gender identity). Proposed penalties include two- to 15-years imprisonment and $2,000 to $10,000 in fines.

Previous legislation failed in the aftermath of the 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners at a Charleston church by avowed white supremacist, Dylann Roof. Though lawmakers pulled the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in the wake of Roof’s rampage, enacting hate crime legislation was “a step too far” for many, according to Cobb-Hunter.

She emphasized that passing such legislation, however, would send a clear message.

“Passing a hate crimes bill will say to all South Carolinians we don’t condone using race or gender or sexual orientation in committing a crime and targeting people,” she said. “It sends a signal that as a matter of public policy the General Assembly does not condone that kind of criminal act, and it may be semantics for some people but it speaks volumes to people who are victims or have family members who were victims of a hate crime.”

Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, did not return a phone call seeking comment on this legislation. Rep. Samuel Rivers, R-Berkeley, sits on the committee.

“There are already laws on the books that take care of those particular things and I want us to focus on enforcing the laws,” Rivers told Statehouse Report. “We do not condone things like that in South Carolina and to suggest we are not protecting our citizens is not an accurate statement.”

Despite long odds against the legislation being heard, Cobb-Hunter said it’s her duty to continue to introduce such legislation.

‘The most repugnant aspect’

In 2015, Roof was charged with both federal and state charges related to the Emanuel 9 murders, but only the federal charges pressed hate crimes against him.

Drake

“What they allow us to do is capture the most repugnant aspect of the crime, which is that bias,” U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said this week in an interview. She brought the federal case against Roof. “(At the federal level), we have a gamut of statutes that allow us to charge that belief that motivates that criminal activity. It gives the people some satisfaction that that element that is so repugnant has been addressed.”

Drake declined to comment on whether the state needs a hate crime statute but added: “It would be another avenue for the state to address the crime … We want our state to take care of our state crimes.”

State prosecutor Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who brought state charges against Roof, declined comment on this story. State Attorney General Alan Wilson also did not return calls to comment.

Former assistant solicitor and former assistant U.S. attorney Miller Shealy said he’s not aware of any crime that isn’t adequately covered by the state’s statutes, and he said judges have sentencing discretion to look at motive and punish for it.

“I’m not sure, at the end of the day, what you get with hate crimes (statutes) other than some people think they are important about making a political statement about the outrageousness of certain acts,” said Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law. “Some people want to punish motive but within our statutory scheme, there is allowance in sentencing that allows the judge to consider that kind of thing.”

He said the downside of passing such a law is enabling law enforcement and prosecutors more power during investigations.

“We have the tools to deal with this already … What is it that we are not punishing? Show me the case and I’ll show you the statute,” Shealy said. “Every time you give the government another arrow in its quiver, you give it the power to shoot at somebody … There are an awful lot of people who can be swept up in those investigations.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Gray, who called it a potential “slippery slope” such as restricting free speech.  But he said he welcomed discussion in the public arena.

“Moving forward in this new environment, I think a lot of things will be discussed,” he said. “People are having to do some soul searching.”

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2 Comments

  1. Who are the SC Congressmen who claim this bill is not needed? I’d just like to get them out of office because they just don’t “get it.” I would suggest they find employment on a par with their understanding of this State, and quit wasting taxpayer money on their expenses.

  2. Judy Hines says:

    The infamous “slippery slope” is almost always invoked when a bill is introduced that reflects the opinions of those who are disadvantaged in our present system. The slippery slope is always raised when even the most modest gun safety reforms are suggested. In response to the Emanuel AME shootings, both issues were addressed in proposed legislation and in neither case had anything remotely responsive been accomplished.

    Judy Hines, Charleston

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