In 2009, President Barak Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law expanded the definition of hate crimes by adding, among other things, new federal protections against crimes based on gender. If what happened on Tuesday at three Atlanta-area spas wasn’t gender-based crime, I’m not sure what is.
Police charged Robert Aaron Long, 21, on Wednesday with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault after they said he went on a shooting rampage first at one establishment in Cherokee County, Georgia, then a short time later at two spas in Atlanta.
As the New York Times reported, the suspect told authorities he had a “sexual addiction” and, the paper wrote, “had carried out the shootings at the massage parlors to eliminate his ‘temptation.’” He also said he had “frequented massage parlors in the past and launched the attacks as a form of vengeance.” All but one of the victims were women. Six of the victims were were women of Asian descent. Long may not know it, and maybe the police don’t even realize it, but Long may have already confessed to a hate crime.
Police should — through extensive investigation of Long’s communications and electronic devices and through interviews with his family members, friends and co-workers — work to confirm his alleged claim of what motivated him. So far, reports indicate the defendant lashed out against his victims, all but one women, six of whom were Asian women, as the figurative, and even literal, embodiment of his alleged addiction. It's important to note that there is no confirmed connection between the victims and sex work, although it feels impossible to ignore a harmful narrative that sexually fetishizes Asian women.
We potentially have motives of gender and race — that checks two of the boxes in the federal hate crime law. Prosecutors could pick one or both — gender as a motive would probably be easier to prove here — but let’s call this what it is: a hate crime.
The Shepard Byrd Act, Title 18, U.S.C., Section 249, makes it a federal crime to willfully cause or attempt to cause bodily injury using a dangerous weapon because of the victim’s "actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin." The act also extends federal hate crime prohibitions to crimes committed because of the "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person."
For race to be applied as the prosecutive strategy, the crime must have "affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction." In my experience, the interstate commerce element is easy: Did the suspect take the highway to drive to his targets? Did the spas get supplies delivered via the interstate? Did the employees travel on highways to get to work? Easy.
Before the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutes a hate crime, the attorney general has to certify that either the state where the crime occurred doesn’t have jurisdiction; the state wants the feds to assume jurisdiction; the outcome of a state trial wasn’t good enough; or, lastly, a prosecution by the federal government is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.
This is where the states have a chance to show the country that they can do the right thing when it really matters before the federal government has to step in and do it for them.
Georgia’s hate crimes bill, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on June 26, imposes additional criminal sentencing guidelines on anyone who commits a hate crime, defined as intentionally based on race, sex, sexual orientation, color, religion, national origin, mental disability or physical disability. The “sex” part and the “national origin” part can and should be used to prosecute Long. If Georgia bypasses this opportunity to show us what it’s made of, the U.S. DOJ should be ready to take the case.
For those who say that none of this matters because Long would spend the rest of his days in prison regardless of whether he’s convicted of simple murder or of a hate crime murder, in fact it does matter — a lot.
It matters that hate was at the dark core of what allegedly drove a man to kill eight people in one evening. It matters that seven were women. It matters that six were Asian women. We have hate crime laws because those crimes are different than other assaults or murders. Crimes based on skin color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, gender identity or other protected characteristics strike against who we are as a free and equal people. Those crimes are a specific type of assault on all of us and what we stand for as humans and as citizens of a democracy.