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When a Hate Crime Can't Be Called a Hate Crime

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Earlier this week, I learned about the case of a young black woman in West Virginia who had been kidnapped and tortured for several days. According to CBS News, "Megan William, 20, was forced to eat rat and dog feces and drink from a toilet. She was sexually assaulted, doused with hot water, choked with a cable cord and stabbed in the leg, according to criminal complaints."

Talk about man's inhumanity to man!

So what does this have to do with hate crimes? Well, that same CBS article gives us more horrific details, stating that, "At one point, one of her captors cut her ankle with a knife and used the N-word in telling her she was victimized because she is black."

So the assailants themselves admitted that they were doing it because she is black. In other words, the crime was committed because of the victim's race. That is one of the criteria for a hate crime in the U.S.

So I was absolutely horrified to see an MSNBC headline today that read, "No federal hate crime charges in torture case". After all, it seemed pretty clear-cut to me. I mean, duh.

But then I read the article, which explained that "Logan County Prosecutor Brian Abraham said his office would pursue other charges first because they carry stiffer penalties."

OK. What these people did was exceptionally heinous, and they should indeed be subjected to the stiffest penalties. So I momentarily stopped panicking about the fact that this case won't (at least initially) be prosecuted as a hate crime. Because we're going to throw the book at them.

But now I wonder if this all makes sense. At least in this case, a hate crime would get a lesser sentence than a "regular" crime of the same nature. It seems to me that there is something very wrong with this picture.

For now, I support the Logan County Prosecutor in his efforts to prosecute these people to the fullest extent of the law and hopefully get them the maximum possible sentences.

But, at the same time, I think that this case gives our lawmakers good reason to reevaluate the sentencing guidelines under our current hate crime laws.

While any crime of this nature is wrong, whatever the motivation, a hate crime tends to involve an emotional element that makes it much more dangerous to society in general if not adequately punished.

If this case doesn't prompt some action in this regard, what will?

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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