Killings, threats, and vandalism across the U.S. have been quickly decried as hate crimes. They include the fatal stabbing of a homeless black man in New York City by a white Maryland man who police said had a long hatred of black men, and the killing in Kansas of a man from India and the wounding of another. Condemning a repugnant act as a hate crime is far easier than making that charge stick in court, and prosecutions could be even less frequent if the Justice Department shifts its approach under a new attorney general who has indicated that states should take the lead, reports the Washington Post. Some states lack hate crime laws. The majority that have them don’t agree on what acts qualify.
Winning a conviction means proving that a person was motivated, for instance, by the victim’s religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Arrests in a spate of bomb threats called in to Jewish schools and centers show how hard it can be to pin down motivation. Police say an Israeli teen arrested Thursday was behind most of the threats, his motives unclear. Sometimes motivation is obvious, sometimes not, said Steven Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney in Ohio who has prosecuted hate crimes. “It’s an additional burden” he said, “but it can be done.” Federal prosecutors long have been the backstop for state officials when it comes to bringing hate crime cases. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposed expanding federal hate crime protections as a senator and has signaled his preference for having states be the spearhead. That stance could have significant impact, given the patchwork of laws. Thomas Wheeler, who was general counsel to Vice President Pence when Pence was Indiana governor, has been designated by Sessions as the acting assistant attorney general overseeing civil rights cases.