Hate crimes, Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, and why motive matters

Hate crimes, Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, and why motive matters

When it comes to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the strongest voice has belonged to Wanda Cooper-Jones, his mother.

With the help of a local newspaper, she pressured authorities to investigate her son’s death when local authorities initially failed to prosecute the three men who shot him when he was out jogging. They were convicted in state court of first-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison.

Why We Wrote This

If someone has been convicted of murder, why then prosecute them for violating a victim’s right to a public street? As hate crimes proliferate, there’s a growing push to shine a light on bigotry.

In January, when federal prosecutors agreed to a plea deal in the subsequent hate crime trial that would have sent the men to an arguably more hospitable federal prison, she pleaded with the judge to refuse it. The judge did.

Her clarity of purpose in seeking justice for her son reflects an effort to push back on a troubling proliferation of hate both online and on the streets. Call these hate crime trials acts of judicial history.

On Tuesday, all three men were found guilty of violating Mr. Arbery’s right to use a public street. When the verdict was read, the foreman, the sole Black man on the panel, wept.

For her part, Ms. Cooper-Jones said about the Justice Department: “They were made to do their job today.”

Savannah, GA.

The foreman, the sole Black man on the panel, wept when the verdict was read.

The evidence in the federal hate crime trial was plain. The men who chased and killed a Black jogger named Ahmaud Arbery in a coastal Georgia suburb two years ago today had a long history of bigoted comments that suggested a simmering hatred for Black people. 

“I wish they’d all die,” one of them said, according to testimony.

Why We Wrote This

If someone has been convicted of murder, why then prosecute them for violating a victim’s right to a public street? As hate crimes proliferate, there’s a growing push to shine a light on bigotry.

All three men were found guilty Tuesday of violating Mr. Arbery’s right to use a public street. They had already been convicted in state court of first-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole for two of them.

The state trial barely mentioned racist motivations, as prosecutors stuck to the stark details of the murder.

Yet “it is motive that strikes fear into people throughout the entire community, because it means that it could have been any of us,” says Justin Hansford, director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. “It’s a flaw in the system, really, that you have to go back to a second whole trial to talk about motive.”

But some prosecutors today are willing to have that second trial, precisely to plumb motive. In the past, they were loath to risk losing a conviction and sought “just the facts, ma’am”-style trials. Accepted wisdom said it was more important to concentrate on the murder case itself, rather than prove that a hate crime had been committed.

Recent hate crime trials, like the one for the killers of Mr. Arbery, show a determination by not just courts, but also victims and juries, to push back, sometimes in profound ways, on a troubling proliferation of hate both online and on the streets. Call them acts of judicial history.

The murder of Mr. Arbery was “an extreme crime,” says Indiana University law professor Jeannine Bell, author of “Hate Thy Neighbor.” “But what the Justice Department did in bringing charges and ultimately winning is they said to state prosecutors around the country that when someone does something lesser – burns a cross; scrawls ‘[N-word], go home’ on someone’s home; assaults someone while screaming slurs at them – then you can bring that as a hate crime. In fact, you should bring that as a hate crime.” 

President Lyndon Johnson signed the first federal hate crime statute into law in 1968. But the Department of Justice has worked since after the Civil War to root out racist crimes in response to the Ku Klux Klan and other domestic terror organizations.

In 2020, law enforcement agencies reported 7,759 hate crime incidents to the FBI. That’s defined as a crime motivated by bias toward someone’s race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or gender identity in 2020. It was the highest number reported since 2008.

Federal prosecutors completed investigations into a total of 1,878 hate crime suspects from 2005 to 2019. Of those, only 17% of suspects were prosecuted by U.S. attorneys, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Think of all the hate crimes that are left on the table, where prosecutors find it so difficult to prove motivation that it’s almost like, what’s the use?” says Professor Hansford, who teaches law at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Protesters stand outside the U.S. Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota, before opening arguments of the civil trial of three former Minneapolis police officers Jan. 24, 2022. Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane are charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights when they took part in his deadly arrest in 2020.

Indeed, hate crime prosecutions are down in the United States. Conviction rates have risen, however, from 83% between 2005 and 2009 to 94% between 2015 and 2019.

That’s in part the result of the proliferation of online speech, which investigators have grown more adept at unearthing and using as evidence.

Moreover, hate crimes are “getting more violent and person directed,” writes Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, in an email.

Researchers saw a 32% increase in hate crimes across 18 U.S. cites – with anti-Black hate crimes up by 18% – in 2021 over the previous year. 

Weapons-related hate crimes have also grown in recent years.

“Historically, hate crimes have been committed with fists and rocks and bats … because offenders wanted to see the victim suffer,” says Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “That has now started to shift. We are seeing more and more guns used in these kinds of crimes. That changes the whole character of [this problem] dramatically.” 

Those dynamics have put pressure on prosecutors to address murkier ideas of motive. 

The federal civil rights trial of three former officers in Minneapolis who declined to come to the aid of George Floyd as he was pinned to the ground by ex-officer Derek Chauvin is centered on the mindset of the officers. The jury began deliberations in that case on Wednesday.

Under Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice has renewed efforts to prosecute hate crimes. Several trials in recent months in Texas, Ohio, Maine, and Oregon resulted in guilty verdicts.

“No one in this country should have to fear the threat of hate-fueled violence, [or being attacked] because of what they look like, where they are from, whom they love, or how they worship,” Mr. Garland said Tuesday.

But when it comes to Mr. Arbery’s murder, the strongest voice has belonged to Wanda Cooper-Jones, his mother.

With the help of a local newspaper, she rallied a wide cross section of Brunswick, Georgia, to pressure authorities to investigate her son’s death, when local authorities initially failed to prosecute the three men. Ms. Cooper-Jones saw such injustice at play again and again.

In January, when federal prosecutors agreed to a plea deal that would have sent the men to an arguably more hospitable federal prison, she pleaded with the judge to refuse that deal. The judge did.

“They were made to do their job today,” Ms. Cooper-Jones said Tuesday about the Justice Department.

Her clarity of purpose in seeking justice for her son reflects a growing push by Americans to hear and understand what motivates people to hate and hurt each other.

“The people who do this … hate everybody who is different,” says Mr. McDevitt, author of “Hate Crimes.” “The strength of response is, how do we build the strongest coalition to say, ‘This is wrong. We won’t tolerate it. We will hold you accountable’?”

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