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March 18, 2021

The Atlanta Shooter Killed Six Women of Asian Descent. Isn’t That A Hate Crime?
By Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan

The debate over what legally constitutes a hate crime—and the barriers to prosecuting them—stretches back decades. So does confusion about hate-crime laws by the American public. In order to charge an individual with a hate crime, law enforcement must be able to prove that an offense was specifically motivated by hate or bias. But authorities aren’t mind-readers; even if the victims all belong to a certain race, religion, sexual orientation or other protected class, prosecutors need to be able to present evidence of this bias in the attacker’s previous actions, words or affiliations. This legal framework leaves significant gaps, especially when it comes to hate crimes against Asian-Americans, advocates say. The recent stabbing of an Asian man in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood drew large protests at the District Attorney’s office when it initially declined to prosecute the attack as a hate crime. (It later changed course). The assailant, a 23-year-old man from Yemen, reportedly told police he “didn’t like the way” the victim “looked at him.” But investigators said they had no evidence that the assailant had seen the victim’s face when he attacked him from behind. Given these legal constraints, both reporting and prosecution rates of hate crimes are exceedingly low. According to a 2019 study from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, state attorneys referred hate-crime cases to the federal government for prosecution 2,000 times over the previous decade. Only 15% of those referrals led to prosecutions.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
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