The nation has seen racial tensions, while far from new, enter the public consciousness in a way that has likely not been seen in decades. From the recent travel ban, to the many reported shootings of minorities by police, to high profile trials with a focus on race such as the case of Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner. Many would argue that the election of last year was characterized to a large degree by these racial tensions; because of this environment the scrutiny on the response to the sort of tragedies that stem from such tensions is properly higher than ever. Just last week, one such tragedy struck hard in Kansas after a man shot two Indian-American citizens after heaping racially tinged verbal abuse upon them–killing one of the men.
On Thursday, February 23rd, there was a University of Kansas vs TCU basketball game on the television at the Austin’s Bar and Grill. However, while Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani enjoyed the game at the bar as they often did after finishing their work day as engineers for the GPS company Garmin, one Adam Purinton reportedly shouted vitriol at them including ethnic slurs and suggestions that they did not belong in this country. Adam Purninton was eventually asked to leave due to the scene he was causing. He left, but later came back bearing a gun. Witnesses reported him shouting racial slurs and telling the two engineers to “get out of my country” before opening fire. Mr. Purinton shot both men, killing Mr. Kuchibhotla. He shot another patron of the bar, Ian Grillot, as the man pursued him as he fled the scene. Mr. Purinton was later arrested after telling an Applebee’s employee that he needed to lay low because he had just killed two Middle Eastern men. He has since been charged in Kansas with one count of premeditated first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first degree murder.
What is conspicuously absent from this list of charges is an allegation that Mr. Purinton’s actions were a hate crime. The silence on this issue in the days immediately following have been the cause of great consternation, especially considering the substantial evidence of a racial motivation behind Mr. Purinton’s acts. To better understand this outrage, it is important to understand exactly how hate crime laws work and the response that has come out of the federal government.
What is a hate crime?
The question is one that I’m certain most feel they could answer intuitively–a crime motivated by hate. This is fairly accurate when speaking about hate crimes more generally. However, as with most things in law, the exact reality is a bit more complex.
We’ve discussed exactly how hate crimes work a bit in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. However, it’s good to review the details a little bit because this case has some unique issues with it. As mentioned above, the basics of a hate crime law are relatively intuitive, although the requirements to prove a hate crime can be a bit more complicated to establish. Hate crimes can generally be discussed as crimes motivated by bias or prejudice against a protected group. When a crime is considered a hate crime, an enhanced penalty is applied to the perpetrator. A few examples of crimes that can be enhanced when motivated by prejudice against the victim include: assault, murder, rape, sexual assault, vandalism, defamation, denial of certain rights, and others.
So, looking at the definition of a hate crime, what would need to be proven to show Mr. Purinton committed a hate crime would be his mental state going in–that the motivation behind the shooting was bias or prejudice against a certain race. The fact that he was completely incorrect in his assumption of the race of the men he shot would not generally be relevant to such a determination. If the witnesses to the shooting, and the Applebee’s employee Mr. Purinton later confessed his crime to, have accurately related what happened then what happened was almost certainly a hate crime. Shouting racial epithets and telling Mr. Kuchibhotlamand Mr. Madasani to “get out of my country” immediately before opening fire is pretty dang strong evidence that Mr. Purinton’s actions were motivated by racial hatred; not to mention the slurs he reportedly threw before being asked to leave the bar.
You may be asking, if the evidence is so strong then why didn’t Kansas bring hate crime charges? The answer is that hate crime laws are different state to state and under federal law. While 45 of the 50 states have hate crime laws, exactly what constitutes a protected group varies from state to state. Some of the most common protected groups include race, age, sex, gender, disability, gender identity, and sexual preference or orientation. In 31 states, a hate crime also gives rise to a civil cause of action above and beyond the enhanced criminal charges brought against the perpetrator. This civil lawsuit is brought by the victim of the hate crime or their surviving family. What’s more, while most states have hate crime laws, not every state has a hate crime statute. The distinction here is that a statute creates an independent charge of a hate crime, many states instead opt for laws allowing enhanced penalties if it is found a person was motivated by hate after they are found guilty of a base crime. Kansas, while it has allowed for enhanced sentencing based on where a crime is motivated bias or prejudice since 2009, has no independent hate crime charge.
While Mr. Purinton could face 50 years in prison should he be found guilty of the charges already brought, there is no law in Kansas under which a hate crime charge or enhancement could be brought to bear against him. This means that any hate crime charges brought against Mr. Purinton would have to be brought at the federal level. This has been a large part of why there has been such intense scrutiny on the federal government’s response to the horrendous crime.
Slow Response from the White House and the Federal Government
In the wake of the shooting, public outcry for the White House to respond to the shooting and declare the act a hate crime was near instantaneous. However, days rolled on with no comment whatsoever from President Trump on the shooting and no word on whether the federal government had any plans whatsoever to investigate. The only comment out of the White House press secretary Sean Spicer saying “any loss of life is tragic..but I’m not going to get into.” Mr. Spicer then spent the remainder of his short commentary on the shooting saying that he wanted to make sure everybody understood that there was no correlation between the shooting and Trump’s comments and stances on immigration–specifically when it comes to Muslims and the Middle-East.
Many questioned the choice of President Trump to stay silent on the issue and, despite Sean Spicer’s protestations, much of the criticism stemmed from Trump’s own history when it comes to immigrants and Muslims. Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjani commented “”The President could say “Don’t shoot innocent brown people. It’s wrong.” And he would save lives. But he won’t. & that doesn’t surprise us.” In India, there was immense media coverage questioning why President Trump didn’t immediately condemn the attack.
President Trump has espoused a fair bit of rhetoric damning immigrants, refugees, and Muslims in particular. Calling immigrants from Mexico rapists, proposing a law requiring all Muslims to register with the government, introducing travel bans specifically targeting Muslim-majority countries. He made a point of inviting three people with relatives killed by illegal immigrants to the same speech where he mentioned the Kansas shootings. It’s easy to see how one might worry that these statements might embolden those who might commit crimes based on hatred, why it was so important that President Trump immediately condemn the crime, and why Mr. Spicer felt such a need to distance the President’s stances and statements from this shooting.
The President’s long silence on the shooting was especially troubling considering how quick President Trump has been to comment on violent incidents abroad, often to the point of misattributing the violence to an entirely different group of perpetrators (namely Muslims and refugees) or simply citing incidents that did not occur at all.
There is No Room for Bigotry and Hate
However, thankfully, the White House’s silence on the matter was not a permanent one. Nearly a week after the shooting occurred, President Trump briefly mentioned the shooting in an address to Congress. In an official statement, the White House condemned the shooting as an “act of racially motivated hatred.” The FBI has also officially begun an investigation, working alongside local police, into the shooting as a hate crime.
We should never hesitate to condemn acts of bigotry and hate within our community; neither should out leaders. While the federal government has eventually responded, it’s halfhearted approach will do nothing to deter acts of hatred. On March 4th, a Sikh man was shot in his own driveway in Washington while working on his car. A man with a mask over the bottom of his face approached him, told him “go back to your own country,” and shot him to death. The White House has had no comment.