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The shootings at a spa may be the first time Georgia’s hate crimes legislation is put to the test.

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The shootings at a spa may be the first time Georgia's hate crimes legislation is put to the test.
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The shootings at a spa may be the first time Georgia's hate crimes legislation is put to the test.

The shootings at a spa may be the first time Georgia’s hate crimes legislation is put to the test.

 

The murder trial of a white man accused of shooting and killing six Asian women and two other people at massage parlors in Atlanta this week may be the first major test of Georgia’s current hate crimes legislation.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, claimed to have a sex addiction and told police that the assaults on two spas in Atlanta and another massage business near suburban Woodstock on Tuesday were not racially motivated.
Authorities said he seemed to lash out at sources of temptation, but they were still looking into his motivation.

Since the majority of the victims were Asian women, there is skepticism of that explanation and calls for hate crime charges, especially within the Asian American community, which has seen an increase in attacks since the coronavirus pandemic began.

However, like many other states, Georgia’s law passed last summer does not establish a separate hate crime, instead providing for a secondary punishment if an individual is convicted of another crime.

“It’s not anything for which you’d be prosecuted.
Pete Skandalakis, a former prosecutor and executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, described it as a “sentence enhancer.”

According to the law, if a crime is motivated by a victim’s race, colour, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, or mental or physical disability, an additional penalty may be levied.
The pandemic had largely halted court proceedings well before the law passed during the national reckoning about racial inequality, but Skandalakis said he doesn’t think the rule has been used yet.

A accusation of hate crime may be used in an indictment or applied later before the trial.
Prosecutors may provide evidence for a hate crime sentencing enhancement if a jury convicts the defendant of the underlying crime.
The jury then deliberates again, with the defense attorneys presenting their own facts.
A statutory enhancement of at least two years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 for a conviction is imposed if jurors deem it to be a hate crime.

The federal government and several states go even further by enacting legislation that make bias-motivated violence illegal without requiring a criminal conviction.

The US Department of Justice can decide to file federal hate crime charges in addition to state charges.
According to two law enforcement officials who talked to The Associated Press, federal authorities have yet to find evidence that Long pursued the victims because of their ethnicity.
Officials with direct knowledge of the investigation spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not able to talk publicly about it.

In Georgia, a murder conviction brings a mandatory minimum term of life in jail, with or without the possibility of parole after 30 years.
If the killing meets those conditions, prosecutors may seek the death penalty.

Long is charged with eight counts of murder, and it will be up to Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to determine if the hate crime enhancement can be sought.

Wallace said in a statement that she is “acutely aware of the feelings of fear being encountered in the Asian-American community” but that she can’t address detailed questions about the case.
Willis’ spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Given that anyone convicted of multiple murders is unlikely to be released from jail, it could be argued that pursuing a hate crime classification that carries a comparatively minor added punishment isn’t worth the effort, time, and money.

But the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration, said it’s not just about the fines.

He said, “It is important that the law calls things what they are.”
“It’s important for victims, and it’s important for society,” says the author.

And, according to state Senator Michelle Au, a Democrat who is Chinese American, the legislation needs to be used to give it teeth.

Since Asian Americans are seen as “model minorities,” a stereotype that they are hardworking, educated, and free of social problems, Au claims there has been some reluctance to prosecute attacks against them as hate crimes across the country.
She said she heard from many constituents in the last year that Asian Americans — and people of Chinese descent in particular — were suffering from bias because the coronavirus had emerged in China and then-President Donald Trump used racial terms to describe it.

“People think they are being duped because they see it every day,” she explained.
“They obviously believe it is politically motivated, but it isn’t branded or pegged as such.
People are disappointed by the lack of visibility and the fact that that part is being overlooked.”

According to Georgia State University law professor Tanya Washington, the new law should be used for legal purposes in addition to sending a message to the nation.
Although police have indicated that it is too early to decide if the spa shootings were a hate crime, she believes the violence was obviously motivated by racism given the individuals and businesses attacked.

“We won’t have a body of law on how to show prejudice caused the conduct until we test it in cases like this one,” she said.

According to Washington, the Georgia legislation also requires law enforcement to collect and disclose data on hate crimes investigated by them, which allows for monitoring and proper resource distribution.

When lawmakers rapidly passed a hate crimes law last year in the aftermath of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and nationwide demonstrations against racial discrimination and police violence, Georgia was one of only four states without one.
In February 2020, Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was pursued and fatally shot while escaping near coastal Brunswick.
Since footage of the murder surfaced months later, three white men were charged with murder.

In 2004, Georgia’s Supreme Court declared an earlier hate crimes law unconstitutional because it was too broad.

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