The shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont has left many people wondering if it was a hate crime. The investigation is ongoing, but there is no clear answer yet. Some people believe that the shooting was motivated by hate, while others think that it was a crime of opportunity. The shooter has not been identified yet, so it is difficult to say for sure what his motives were.
The shooting has sparked a debate about hate crimes and how they should be defined. Some people believe that the definition of a hate crime is too broad, while others believe that it is not wide enough. The debate is likely to continue as the investigation into the Vermont shooting continues.
To the shooting, Jason J. Eaton, 48, was taken into custody on Sunday and charged with three charges of attempted second-degree murder. He entered a not-guilty plea.
Chief of Burlington Police Jon Murad said Eaton is suspected of shooting the three students on Saturday night while they were walking in front of his apartment building and spoke in Arabic and English. At the time of the attack, two of the guys were wearing keffiyehs, traditional scarves worn throughout the Middle East but linked to Palestinian identity and struggle, according to Murad.
Authorities stated they are looking into whether hate was a driving force behind the crime, but they have not yet established a motive for the attack. To link the shootings to the alarming increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice incidents in the US since the recent war between Israel and Hamas began in October, the families of the victims and civil rights organizations have urged that the attack be looked into as a hate crime.
However, Sarah George, the state’s attorney for Chittenden County, whose office would pursue those charges, advised caution. “It changes things when you add a hate crime enhancement,” George stated during a press conference on Monday.
It implies that to establish a further element of the crime, we must do it conclusively. Sometimes, it’s evident from the defendant’s statements or things instantly visible in an apartment or online. Still, today, that extra element we do require.
What exactly is a hate crime?
According to the Justice Department, a hate crime at the federal level is a criminal act motivated by hatred.
According to the DOJ, “bias against people or groups having specific characteristics that are defined by the law” is what is meant when the term “hate” is used in this context rather than “anger or rage.” According to the DOJ, bias-motivated crimes might involve “assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threats to commit such crimes” and are frequently violent. Even in cases when no crimes are committed, a person may still be charged with hate crimes for allegedly preparing or requesting someone else to commit the crimes.
The FBI reports that 13,278 people were the victims of hate crimes in 2022. Whereas 17.3% and 17.2% of the occurrences the FBI documented were motivated by a specific bias, 59.1% were based on a person’s race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
Less than 1% of hate crimes were based on gender, 1.5% on disabilities, and 4% on gender identity.
The FBI gathers and disseminates information on hate crimes from state and local agencies; however, only around 80% of agencies voluntarily submit statistics to the bureau.
According to the FBI’s National Crime Victimization Survey, less than half of hate crime victims disclose their crimes to the authorities, making it difficult to track them accurately. This suggests that the true yearly total of hate crimes in the US is probably underestimated.
State Crime Is Different From A Federal Hate Crime
According to the Justice Department, hate crime laws at the federal level refer to crimes “committed based on the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.”
Local and state courts enforce laws against hate crimes in most states and US territories.
A person can face prosecution for both federal and state hate crimes simultaneously, according to CNN legal expert and former deputy assistant attorney general Elliot Williams. The prosecutor will pursue the charges based on several circumstances, including the location of the crime.
“The attorney general must certify in writing that the prosecution won’t obstruct a state case or that it’s in the public interest for the feds to bring a case before the federal government can file hate crime charges,” Williams stated.
Williams said that when determining whether to press charges in a case, prosecutors consider a few other variables.
First, what can be easily proven? Williams questioned, “What evidence do prosecutors think they have to win and get past the jury?” Secondly, in what situation would the most significant sentence decision be made? Additionally, occasionally, that may occur at the state level, in which case the federal government would first yield to the state.
Why it would be challenging to prosecute someone for hate crimes
The attack “absolutely was a hateful act,” Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday. However, it is a separate story whether or not we may go over the legal limit to declare it a hate crime.
Although this may sound like carefully worded legalese, ElieHonig, senior legal analyst for CNN and a former federal and New Jersey prosecutor, stated that prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that racial hatred was the driving force behind the victim’s actions to find someone guilty of a hate crime. This is a significant legal burden.
According to Honig, “that can be more difficult than it might appear at first blush.” “You must prove a specific crime motive in hate crimes. The criminal must be proven to have committed the crime in both cases and to have had a particular reason.
Honig stated that in evaluating whether to file a hate crime charge, prosecutors would take into account any relevant evidence, such as the suspect’s disparaging remarks about their race and ethnicity on social media, their conversations with family and friends, or a confession made following an arrest.
However, authorities warn that it may take some time to locate such evidence. The attack was undoubtedly a hate crime, according to Chittenden County state attorney Sarah George, who stated on Monday that there isn’t enough evidence to establish an enhancement for the crime.
According to the Justice Department, it is also looking into the possibility that the act was a hate crime.
U.S. Justice Department For hate crimes
Since the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Justice Department has started prosecuting federal hate crime cases.
Congress has enacted laws over time that have strengthened the definition of protected classes and stiffened the punishment for perpetrating hate crimes. White nationalists killed a Black man from Jasper, Texas named James Byrd, Jr., in June 1998 after being dragged to death while tied to the back of a vehicle in what was regarded as a contemporary lynching. Matthew Shepard was beaten and attacked for being gay in Wyoming a few months later. Six days later, he passed dead in a hospital.
Congress eventually passed a new hate crimes statute as a result of the national shock caused by their deaths.
The requirement that the victim must have been participating in a federally protected activity at the time of the crime—such as voting—was eliminated by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. According to the Department of Justice, it is the first federal statute that permits criminal prosecution of crimes motivated by a victim’s perceived sexual orientation. Additionally, it declares it a federal crime that involves “willful physical harm to another person, or attempting to do so with a deadly weapon, depending on the victim’s actual or imagined race, religion, national origin, or color.