Legal Definitions Of Hate Crimes Vary

Audie Cornish talks to Chris Benson, associate professor of journalism and African American studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, about what constitutes a hate crime and what role it's playing in recent headlines.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As John mentioned, some in Tulsa, including families of the victims, are calling for the shootings to be treated as hate crimes. Federal prosecutors in Oklahoma say it is too soon to make that call.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So how do they decide what's a hate crime and what is not? States have varying hate crime laws on the books. In 2009, the Federal Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed by President Obama. That law gave federal prosecutors more money, support, and leeway to intervene in state cases.

Chris Benson studies the prosecution of hate crimes. He's at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Welcome, Chris.

CHRIS BENSON: Thank you. It's good to be here.

CORNISH: So to start, what is the federal legal definition of a hate crime?

BENSON: Well, definition of a hate crime, legal definition this is involves the commission of a crime that is motivated by bias. And that bias has to be in evidence somehow. And it's bias on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and a few other areas of protected group membership.

CORNISH: And the federal law that was passed, how has that changed the landscape at all?

BENSON: Well, first of all, it changed the federal approach to looking into hate crimes. So, the federal government now can assist state governments in investigating hate crimes. And the federal government, I should say, also has historically stepped in to investigate crimes like this when the states have failed to prosecute them or to investigate them adequately.

CORNISH: So, Chris, we have we've had speculation in this case, the Tulsa shooting, along with the Trayvon Martin shooting death, a lot of speculation about what are the factors that might make these cases hate crimes. What are the things that the prosecutors would be looking for?

BENSON: Well, on the one hand, prosecutors are going to want to look for some manifestation of bias at the time of the commission of the crime. So, something that the accused says, a racial epithet, for example, would be that kind of evidence. Absent that, the prosecutor is going to want to try to find circumstantial evidence that suggests a state of mind that would contribute to elements of a hate crime.

So, for example, membership in a hate group, a white supremacist group; some family background of exposure to some of these issues; writings, posters, past statements in this regard are going to help to form that circumstantial case.

CORNISH: And conversely, and in other cases, defendants have tried to find the opposite - tried to prove that they have relationships with the group that they're said to have offended.

BENSON: Yes. And while that might serve to mitigate in some ways - to counter the argument that an accused is a racist or had some racial bias with respect to the crime - it depends on the weight of the evidence.

CORNISH: In the Tulsa case, there was a city councilman who said that he believed the community would be upset if the Tulsa shooting wasn't pursued with a hate crime prosecution. Does the public have realistic expectations of this law and how it can be applied?

BENSON: Well, you know, there is a lack of public understanding of how these things work. There is the prosecutorial strategy. And the fine elements of proving a case are not always well-understood by the public. That said, the way these cases advance sends a signal to our society about the values we have in our society. Is freedom from this kind of crime something that we value so highly that this is something that we are going to prosecute?

CORNISH: Chris Benson, he's a trained lawyer and a professor of African-American studies and journalism at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

Chris Benson, thank you so much for talking with us.

BENSON: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

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