Guest Blogger

When epithets are not enough, what does it take to call a hate crime a crime?

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 13, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: hate crimes against LGBT people, New York, New York City Anti-Violence Project

Editors' note: Sharon Stapel is the Executive Director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project.

The mistrial determination in the Brooklyn Keith Phoenix trial sends a clear message: We are not safe. Hakim Scott and Keith Phoenix were charged with committing a hate crime in the murder of Jose Sucuzhanay which occurred after a brutal attack, during which the attackers yelled anti-gay and anti-immigrant epithets, on Jose and his brother Romel.

Phoenix's trial for his part in the brutal attack resulted in a mistrial as the jury could not decide between a charge of manslaughter or murder as a hate crime. Defense attorneys argued that this was just a "fight," not a bias-motivated crime. On May 7th, Scott's trial resulted in a manslaughter verdict with the jury deciding against charging him with murder as a hate crime.

These trial decisions tell us we have a lot of work to do in educating the public about what a hate crime is.

Both the Scott verdict and the Phoenix mistrial point to a terrible lack of understanding of what hate crimes are, what they mean to victims and their loved ones and to the effect they have on communities. Despite clear evidence of explicit anti-gay and anti-immigrant bias, a jury of the attackers' peers was unable to find these acts to be bias motivated hate crimes.

At the New York City Anti-Violence Project we know that people are targeted for this type of brutality every day based on whom they are perceived to be - often being targeted and "jumped" for no apparent reason except bias, as in this attack. These decisions have lasting effects on the LGBT and immigrant communities.

We now know that, despite the broad legal protections against racist and homophobic and transphobic violence in New York City and State, those who are interpreting the laws - the juries of our peers - don't see explicit epithets as hate violence. Both the violence carried out against the Sucuzhanay brothers and the verdict and mistrial in the cases of their alleged attackers sends a message that members of the LGBT and immigrant communities continue to be legitimate targets for violence based on their actual or perceived identities.

When juries refuse to see explicit and verbal anti-gay and anti-Latino epithets as evidence of intent to commit a hate crime based on identity, we who are vulnerable to this violence wonder, "What else will it take?"

We must change the culture of our cities, and our country, because the laws that protect are clearly not enough.

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This is one of the several reasons why hate-crime statutes are so flawed (btw, I am in favor of them). They are applied with such irregularity and with so much hesitancy they are little more than theoretical statements by government and not really intended to protect. Btw, if we're talking about applying hate crime laws, how about all the years when NY State protected gays and lesbians but not trans people? How many trans women were murdered or attacked during that period?

I agree that, if there is language during a crime which falls into the standard category of "hate speech" then it should be tried as a hate crime. Prosecutors and DAs need to be trained to handle these cases and not chicken out because of their own inability (or unwillingness) to get convictions.

Is there a difference in the law between shouting an epithet at someone you already know that you're already fighting for another reason because you know the epithet will piss them off and choosing someone because they're a specific minority and shouting epithets at them? I don't know about NYS's law, but I'm guessing it's written so that the mere utterance of epithets isn't a crime, whether or not they're accompanied by violence.