The killing of nine worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, has focused national attention on hate crimes.
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man who is accused of the killings was reported to have used racist abuse against the black worshippers.
The Justice Department said an ongoing federal inquiry into the Charleston, S.C., shooting will consider possible hate crime violations and the shooting will be looked at as a possible “act of domestic terrorism,” reported USA Today.
Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder in the attack at a historic black church. He was not charged with a hate crime because South Carolina is one of five states that lack a hate crimes statute.
Hate crimes are a relatively new development in the United States. Most states, including Texas, added hate crimes to their statutes over the last three decades.
A hate crime is an offense such as murder, vandalism or arson with an added element of bias. At present 45 states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes statutes. A federal hate crimes law was enacted after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. It originally included race, color, religion or national origin and was subsequently expanded in 2009 to include crimes based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.
The bill and its expansion had its opponents. “Its passage would strike at the very heart of our democracy,” wrote former Nixon adviser and evangelical leader Chuck Colson in 2007 before the expansion of the law.
The legislation allows the federal government to act as a backstop if the Justice Department deems that a state is unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute an alleged hate crime.
Every year about 6,000 hate crime incidents are investigated, USA Today reported. Race is the most common form of hate crime accounting for 48 percent of incidents while sexual orientation accounts for 20 percent of offenses and about 17 percent of hate incidents were linked to religion.
When a defendant is found to have committed a hate crime he or she will often face a more serious sentence. The statutory maximum penalty for a federal hate crime conviction is 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
Federal crimes investigated by the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration routinely carry higher sentences. If you are being investigated by a federal agency, you should take action immediately and hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer.