DOJ Downplays Expectation For Hate Crimes Law

In 2009, Congress passed a federal hate crimes law to make it easier for the Justice Department to prosecute people who target victims because of race, religion and sexual orientation. Federal prosecutors have used the new hate crimes law just nine times so far.

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And I'm David Greene. Nearly three years ago, Congress passed a federal hate crime law. It makes it illegal to target victims because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. The law drew protests from some Republican lawmakers and religious groups, who said it threatened their free speech rights. And the law has been used sparingly.

But supporters say the time is now for the federal government to bring the law into some sensitive cases, including the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and the murders of three African-Americans in Tulsa Oklahoma. So far, the Justice Department has played down expectations. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Federal prosecutors have used the new hate crimes law just nine times so far. Michigan law professor Sam Bagenstos describes one of them.

SAM BAGENSTOS: An individual who had a developmental disability and also was a Native American was tortured, branded with a swastika and otherwise very seriously assaulted.

JOHNSON: That case, in New Mexico, marked the first time the Justice Department won a guilty plea using the new hate crimes law. A former member of the Neo-Nazi Party pleaded guilty too. He got 32 years in prison for trying to detonate a bomb at the Martin Luther King, Jr. day parade in Washington state last year.

Prosecutors used the law again in March to go after the people who killed James Craig Anderson, a black man, by running him over with a three-ton truck. Attorney General Eric Holder...

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: To the extent that people say that, you know, these racial issues are all behind us, one only has to look at that case where you had three young men, white guys, go out and say that they were going to hunt down a black person, any black person, and you know, beat him up , attack him.

JOHNSON: Then, two weeks ago, Holder's Justice Department used the new hate crimes law again. The first case built because of someone's sexual orientation. An FBI agent says the defendants lured the victim into a pickup truck, drove him to the Kingdom Come state park in Kentucky and beat him. The man escaped and called 911 from a park ranger station.

Two women involved in the episode have pleaded guilty. Two men are fighting the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. Law professor Sam Bagenstos says it's hard to bring these cases because there's a high bar.

BAGENSTOS: This is not a statute that prohibits speech at all. It prohibits only violent conduct. And it's not a statute that prohibits violent conduct where there happens to be some racial epithet spoken. I mean, there has to be enough evidence that the victim was targeted because of the victim's race or other protected status.

JOHNSON: So it's hard to prove a violation of the law, which explains the small number of cases. And experts say there's another reason it's rare: the Attorney General has to certify there's a special reason for the federal government to be involved every time he wants to use the hate crimes law. But the new law does give federal authorities some wiggle room. Jeannine Bell teaches law at Indiana University.

JEANNINE BELL: The new legislation creates the ability for the Justice Department to provide funds to localities that are engaged in hate crime prosecution.

JOHNSON: Not just money, but expertise, that federal authorities have been deploying in Florida and in Oklahoma.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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