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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

A history of hate crimes

Shocking video showing four black youths torturing a disabled, white captive spread across the internet and media outlets recently. Almost immediately, some politicians and members of the media began calling for hate crime charges.

No policy conflicts me as much as hate crimes. The rationales for adopting hate crime legislation are powerful and moving. Yet, I’ve always struggled with the concept of the motivation for an action being a crime itself in addition to the actual, underlying criminal act.

For example, there is no question heinous crimes occurred in Chicago. Holding a person bound and gagged for days, making threats of abuse, and using a knife to cut into the boy’s scalp all constitute serious felonies. The list of charges should be long with corresponding prison sentences.

And that is if I watch the video on mute. The four Chicago attackers are likely to be incarcerated for a substantial period of time, regardless of their motives or the words they said.

Ironically, this incident took place in the hometown of Emmett Till, maybe the most historically significant victim of a hate-based crime. In 1955, two white men murdered the 14-year-old Till for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The brutal murder likely would have been swept unnoticed into history except his mother demanded his body be returned to Chicago and displayed in an open casket. Two magazines published photos of his distorted face and sparked a national outrage often credited for bringing the Civil Rights Movement to the forefront of American consciousness.

Horrific as the photos of Till are — nauseating doesn’t begin to describe the iconic picture of him in his casket — the subsequent legal proceedings exposed a great fault in the American legal system. Till’s murderers went free because a white jury in Mississippi refused to convict them.

But that is the crux of the issue. The legal system didn’t deny Till justice because it failed to criminalize the motives of his murderers; but, rather, it cracked when the system failed to convict his murderers for the actual crimes committed against Till. They kidnapped, beat and killed a young boy. The pair should have faced the death penalty regardless of race, but walked away free.

Forty years after Till, another two men murdered Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Unlike the Till case, juries convicted Shepard’s murderers and each received two consecutive life sentences. But his death led many legislative bodies to either adopt or expand hate crime laws. Colorado’s own hate crime statutes were adopted the following year.

This is the case that has most conflicted me. I have worked and sacrificed for members of the LGBT community to receive equal treatment under the law. I know that being gay substantially enhances the probability of being bullied, beaten or assaulted. I support using hate-based motivation to help prove an underlying crime or enhance sentences. But I still am unsure about it as a crime of its own.

When I base my advocacy on equal rights, it is hard to harmonize that principle with the idea that the same crime can lead to different charges based solely on the identity of a victim and corresponding motivation of an assailant. Was Shepard’s death really worse than Luz Maria Franco Fierros, a Douglas County woman murdered in s similarly horrific manner a year before Congress enacted the federal Matthew Shepard Act?

Every time a case like the one in Chicago brings up hate crimes, this internal conflict arises anew. And in a world where people act on hate, it is likely to never abate.

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