Sunday, November 04, 2007

To Charge or Not to Charge: The Hate Crime Question

Saturday, November 3rd, Charleston, West Virginia was filled with people urging prosecutors to add a hate crime charge to a case against six white individuals who beat, tortured and assaulted a 20-year-old black woman. Megan Williams, the victim, joined in the protests. Protests are all fine and good; however, the N.A.A.C.P. and the prosecution begged Williams and others to not stage the protest seeing as it might harm the prosecution's case. The three men and three women are already being charged with assault and kidnapping. Kidnapping in West Virginia could land them with a life sentence. Hate crimes, on the other hand, only carry ten years. Why would they protest for a charge that could minimize the amount of time spent in jail?

Is there a value placed on a court case labeled "hate crime?" Do we judge the court case any differently even though the defendants are being tried for kidnapping and sexual assault instead of hate crimes? Is it about the status of a court case, or does the victim feel the need to provoke and expose hatred on a national scale?

9 comments:

Nikki M said...

If it is true that the defendents harmed Williams because of her race, then it is important to pursue this crime as a hate crime. I'm not sure why the prosecution should have to choose between charging for kidnapping or a hate crime, why not both? Hate crimes are directed towards an entire group of people, and its important we punish them harshly to provide a detterant and let people know we are not going to tolerate this type of behavior.

I think this post is relevant in light of our discussion about rather or not to formally label the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey a "genocide". Maybe the label doesn't mean that much and what seems important is to charge the defendents with whatever carries the maximum penalty. However, in light of the recent racial tensions, I think it's important for this country to acknowledge that Williams may have been targetted because she was African Americans.

pud2you said...

I agree with nikki. The practical solution to this question would be to try them for both offenses. I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to the judicial systems but I'm pretty sure its possible to try people for more than one charge.

Even though the punishment may be less severe, charging the defendants for hate crimes is more about the principle than the resulting action. Declaring this a hate crime sets a precedent for future incidences. Especially in the wake of the current racism that has been observed through the noose hangings across the country, it is important to identify the problem and provide restitution for those affected. The failure to do so would be as bad as ignoring the violation of human rights all together, which I think people would agree, is the last thing this country needs.

Tylar said...

Why is there hesitation on the prosecution's part? Perhaps they are aware that this is, in fact, a hate crime, but they wish to lock the perpetrators up for more than ten years. If the jury finds the defendants guilty of hate crimes and not of kidnapping and assault, their time spent in jail could be less. Do you think it's better for them to serve a more severe sentence and not have the hate crime title or should they be tried for hate crimes and serve a sentence that doesn't necessarily fit their crime?

Ben said...

I agree with both of you in the fact that what these guys did was horrific. The only thing I wonder is if it was truly racially motivated? I understand that it was an African American involved but could it have been because she was a woman? Maybe some other reason? Therefore I give the prosecution credit for being hesitant in their immediate decision to call it a Hate Crime.(It should eventually because it most likely was) With the wrongful accusations involving the Duke players in North Carolina, the jump to conclusions when involving race can simply cause more racists.

Dr. D said...

Ben, you're on to something. If you read some of the earlier articles about the case, apparently the victim was one of the perpetrator's girlfriend.

Lusmaia212 said...

This case may be a little more complicated being that Williams was one of the perpretators girlfriend. Placing that aside naming it a hate crime can be compared to the concept of procedural justice mentioned in the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation: Judging Fairness of Amnesty in South Africa. Although the punishment might be less severe; bringing light to these issues might be more imperative for our society to realize is not only the justice system that should act but our entire society.

Austin said...

I've always thought the whole "hate crime" idea was very interesting, because it begs the question of whether or not motivations should truly be taken into account when punishing actions. If someone murders someone else because they simply don't like them, does that make it less of a crime than if someone is murdered over their race? Isn't it doing an injustice to those murdered over let's say money, to say that it's a worse crime to be murdered over race, ethnicity or religion? If I hate my neighbor and kill him, isn't that a "hate" crime too?

Regardless, I agree with Nikki -- why can't they simply be brought up on both charges? Clearly there's some issue with that (or the article wouldn't really have a point) but I don't see why.

Lukovica said...

I would like to address some of the questions raised in the previous post.
“If I hate my neighbor and kill him, isn't that a "hate" crime too?” I think this is a really important question, because it is precisely this way of thinking about the words “hate” and “hate crime” that causes a lot of confusion in this debate.
Let’s say you hate your neighbor for having very loud parties all the time, or because he had sex with your wife and you beat him up (or kill him, if we stick to your example). Surely, your action is motivated by hate. But I think we all realize that “hate crime” statues are not targeted at this type of incident. I think “hate crime” is not a very good name for the concept we are talking about. Bias-motivated crime is much more accurate. "Hate crime" is different from other crime not because it involves hate, but because they it is motivated by bias aimed at a distinctive group of which the victim is merely a representative. So, killing your neighbor out of hate is not necessarily a "hate crime". Element of hate is neither necessary, not sufficient condition here.

If someone murders someone else because they simply don't like them, does that make it less of a crime than if someone is murdered over their race?

First of all, if someone murders someone else because they “simply don’t like them”, this someone would have a chance getting off by pleading insanity.
Now, regarding the factors that make a murder a “lesser crime”. I think,
there is no such thing as a "lesser" murder. We should not be asking whether there is a substantive difference between a murder like that of Mathew Sheppard, who was selected based upon his sexual orientation, and one where all the facts are the same but the victim is selected because of personal vengeance (stole a wife, cheated the defendant in a business deal, etc). Any murder is a heinous, horrible act. If we want to think seriously about the bias-motivated crime and distinguish it from other crime, we should think about it not just in the context of murder, but other crimes too.
As Daniel Levy points out, “there is something fundamentally different about XXX carved into the hood of a car improperly using a handicapped space and KKK carved into the same car because the driver was African American”
I think we all feel that there is a difference, even if we cannot define it.
In his article “Hate Crime Laws: Cure or Placebo?” Levy provides a nice conceptual distinction between bias-motivated crimes and other crimes. He argues that most violent crimes may be divided into two broad categories: crimes committed without any specific animus for the victims (concern with the act itself), and crimes specifically motivated by the identity of the victim. In crimes of the first category, such as bank robbery, house break-ins, terrorist attacks, victims are often interchangeable. The perpetrators of the crime are not in the least concerned about victim’s identity. Revenge, crimes of passion, some of the crimes for pecuniary gain (such as murder an aunt to prevent her from amending the will) are aimed at specific person and would be meaningless if the victim is someone else.
The “hate crimes” fall into neither category. The victims are selected not because of what they do (work as a bank clerk) or who they are (unfaithful wife), but what they are (African-American, homosexual, white Christian, Shia Muslim, etc.)

Isn't it doing an injustice to those murdered over let's say money, to say that it's a worse crime to be murdered over race, ethnicity or religion?

It is not worse. As I have said before, there is no such thing as “better” or “worse” murder in terms of morality of the act (I also believe that the fact that murder is committed by the state does not make the act moral either, but this is just a personal view). However, the bias-motivated crime has a more detrimental impact on the community and society: this crime sends a message of hate to a group of people in society; divides the society and causes social unrest. If we believe that the harm caused by the offense should be considered when making a sentence determination, it would be reasonable to adopt sentence-enhancement provisions for bias-motivated crimes. As Blackstone put it: "it is but reasonable that among crimes of different natures those should be most severely punished, which are the most destructive of the public safety and happiness."

Adrian said...

I do not think that it is the victim’s intention to provoke and expose hatred on a national scale. There is already a lot of hate in our society. It is something millions of Americans, and millions more around the world, endure everyday. Sadly, hatred is a part of life. Some may not see it, or experience hatred as much as others do, for a wide variety of reasons. It is nevertheless a very real factor.
I think what Megan Williams is looking for, is a sense of personal justice. As much as hatred is a part of life, it is nevertheless something that society dislikes. Thus someone, who has been exposed for committing a hate crime, may be more socially detested than someone who is sentenced for assault.. Perhaps Ms. Williams is sceptical that the legal system will be able to ensure that the perpetrators remain in prison for the entirety of their sentence. Perhaps she feels that publicly condemning those who hurt her as perpetrators of hate crimes would fulfil her desire for justice more so than life imprisonment would.
Why not consider the possibility of trying the defendants for both ‘hate crimes’ and for ‘kidnapping and sexual assault?’
Perhaps Ms. Williams feels that it is time that those who commit malicious acts based on race, should be exposed and publicly denounced.