Guilty plea in N.C. Muslim murders draws attention to weak state hate crime laws

Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, were gunned down inside their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015. Though the killer was motivated by bias against their Muslim faith, the local prosecutor could not charge him with a hate crime because of how the state's hate crime law is crafted. But there's an effort underway to change that.

The man who gunned down his three Muslim neighbors inside their condominium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015 pleaded guilty last week and was sentenced to three life terms in prison for the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Barakat was Syrian-American while the Abu-Salha sisters were of Palestinian descent, with Yusor born in Jordan and Razan in the United States.

Though the Chapel Hill police initially said the slayings were the result of a parking dispute, the victims' families maintained the killer had been motivated by hostility toward their faith, apparent because of the sisters' headscarves. Craig Hicks, a white man who moved to Chapel Hill from Illinois, was an outspoken atheist and gun enthusiast who had expressed hatred of Islam and had a history of confronting neighbors of color with a firearm in his hand. An expert witness submitted an affidavit in the case in which he said the "victims were seen and interacted with differently because of who they were and because of how the defendant saw them." The day of Hicks' sentencing, the police chief released a statement in which he apologized for his department's initial message and for adding to the families' pain.

But even though the Chapel Hill murders are now acknowledged to have been motivated by bias, the local authorities did not, and could not, prosecute them that way. That's because North Carolina lacks a hate crime law that applies to felonies — one of many serious weaknesses in state hate crime laws nationwide and especially across the South, where many legislatures have demonstrated hostility to expansive hate crime statutes.

Hate crime laws acknowledge that crimes committed against someone because of their race or other innate characteristic victimize not just that individual but are meant to terrorize an entire community. The first such laws in the U.S. were passed at the federal level following the Civil War, a period in which the Ku Klux Klan engaged in widespread anti-black violence in the South. In 1871, Congress passed the Enforcement Act, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which among other things empowered the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and imprison suspects in order to combat white supremacist organizations. President Grant requested the law after receiving reports of widespread racial threats in the South and used it to effectively dismantle the Klan for a time.

Later, during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century when there were numerous attacks on organizers, the FBI used existing civil rights laws — including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin — to prosecute white supremacists who committed violence against African Americans and civil rights activists. The agency often did so when local authorities in the Jim Crow South refused to investigate or prosecute such crimes.

The modern era of hate crime law began when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, which made it illegal to forcefully "injure, intimidate, or interfere" with anyone engaged in protected activities, including voting and attending school, because of their race, color, religion, or national origin. The law requires prosecution of such crimes to be certified by the U.S. attorney general. In the Chapel Hill case, then-Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta declined to prosecute under the statute, citing a lack of clarity over the killer's motivation and leaving local prosecutors to handle the case under state law.

The first state to pass a hate crime law was California in 1978; it enhanced penalties in cases where murder was motivated by prejudice based on race, religion, color, and national origin. North Carolina passed its hate crime law, creating the misdemeanor offense of "ethnic intimidation," in 1991. The most recent state to adopt a hate crime law was Indiana, which did so earlier this year.

Today only four states — three of them in the South — lack state hate crime statutes: Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming. While Georgia passed a hate crime law in 2000 that prohibited crimes based on "bias or prejudice," it did not explicitly define applicable categories such as race or religion, and four years later the state Supreme Court struck it down as "unconstitutionally vague." Meanwhile, the Georgia legislature has failed to pass another hate crime law in its stead.

As a consequence, a Georgia man convicted of throwing scalding water on a sleeping same-sex couple after telling one of them to "get out of my house with all that gay" couldn't be charged with a hate crime. Nor could the members of Respect the Flag, a pro-Confederate group, who interrupted a black child's birthday party with racial slurs and armed threats; instead, Douglas County prosecutors lodged additional charges under a statute taking aim at street gangs.

Revamping weak laws

Prosecuting a crime motivated by bias can be difficult even in states with hate crime laws, as the statutes don't necessarily recognize all the categories of people that can be targets of crimes motivated by hatred.

The Center for Public Integrity published an investigation into state hate crime laws last year. It found that most states designate race, religion, and national origin as motivations for hate crimes, but 13 exclude sexual orientation and 33 exclude gender identity. (The Indiana law passed this year covers sexual orientation but not gender identity.) The investigation also noted that while some state laws make it possible to charge someone specifically for committing a hate crime, others provide only for increased sentences for those convicted of underlying crimes, such as murder, assault, or vandalism.

Of the 10 Southern states that have hate crime laws, for example, four do not provide penalty enhancement for crimes committed because of someone's sexual orientation: Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia. And no Southern state has a hate crime law that enhances penalties for crimes committed because of someone's gender identity, even though there have been numerous murders of transgender people in the South in recent years.

Last year, for example, 55 percent of the trans women reported to have been killed in the U.S. lived in Southern states, according to Human Rights Campaign statistics shared in a recent report by the BBC. In Dallas, for example, three black trans women have been murdered in the past year alone, while 82 percent of the transgender people killed nationwide last year were women of color. A Texas lawmaker tried to expand his state's hate crime law this year to cover crimes committed against transgender people, but the bill failed to make it out of committee.

And while the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly has declined to add sexual orientation or gender identity to the state's hate crime statute, it has used legislation to stir up negative sentiment toward LGBTQ and trans people — from passing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that was ultimately overturned by the courts, to the notorious "bathroom bill" based on the calumny that trans people are predators and which lawmakers partially repealed after widespread protests and boycotts.

This year, a group of Democratic lawmakers tried to beef up North Carolina's weak hate crime law. In March, state Sens. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County, Valerie Foushee of Orange County, and Mujtaba Mohammed of Mecklenburg County introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to broaden the existing law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability, and to create a hate crime category of "felonious assault" applying to crimes of bias involving death, kidnapping, rape, or forcible sexual offense. It would also require the creation of a hate crime database at the State Bureau of Investigation and mandate hate crime-related training for law enforcement and prosecutors.

The bill attracted nine co-sponsors, all of them Democrats, but the Senate leadership sent it to the Rules Committee shortly after it was introduced, and it failed to get a hearing before the deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber. Chaudhuri and Foushee introduced a similar measure last session that also died in the Rules Committee. Chaudhuri isn't giving up, though: He's already said he plans to introduce his measure again next year, which is an election year for the state legislature.

"This act will not eliminate hate crimes or hate groups," Chaudhuri said in a statement when the bill was introduced. "But, this will signal to businesses across the country and internationally that North Carolina is a welcoming state, a state that works to recognize diversity and that our diversity is our greatest strength, not our weakness."