Federal law enforcement officials said on Thursday that with the support of local authorities, they will investigate the June 17 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina — in which a white gunman killed nine people at a historic black church — as a hate crime.
“In this case, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is a hate crime,” said Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen.
While the shooting may be considered a hate crime under federal law, that designation does not exist in South Carolina’s criminal code. The Palmetto State is one of just five states lacking any sort of hate crime statute. The other four are Arkansas, Wyoming, Georgia and Indiana.
Activists have pushed for years for a hate crime bill in South Carolina, but they have not yet built enough support in the state legislature. Members of the state’s General Assembly have tried and failed to pass a hate crime law during the 2009–10 legislative session, the 2011–12 session and the 2013–14 session. The most recent version of the law, which is still under consideration, was introduced in January.
Hate crime laws usually strengthen the penalties for certain crimes if they are motivated by bias against certain protected classes. In states with hate crime legislation — and under federal law — that most often means that crimes motivated by racial or religious prejudice are considered hate crimes. Many states also include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a protected class, something that progressive activists are pushing for in South Carolina.
State Rep. William Gilliard, a Democrat, co-sponsored the first attempt at passing hate crime legislation in South Carolina, and he has been working on the issue ever since. He said that incidents like the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church demonstrate the need for hate crime penalties, something he hopes opponents of his proposals will now recognize. “Some people just didn’t care,” he said of previous efforts to pass hate crime legislation. “They just didn’t see a need."
South Carolina Republicans, including Gov. Nikki Haley, have argued that federal hate crime statutes and state laws against violent offenses are sufficient and that South Carolina does not need its own hate crime law. But Gilliard said passing a state law would make it easier to prosecute hate crimes quickly without waiting for federal involvement. “If we had in-house laws, we could expedite it, and we could add different penalties to really send a strong message,” he said.
Whether that message would be heard is another story. Skeptics of hate crime legislation, such as New York University law professor James B. Jacobs, question the effectiveness of hate crime legislation in preventing bias-motivated violence. “If the shooter was not deterred by punishments for mass murder, including the death penalty, he would not be deterred by an additional punishment for hate crime,” he said via email.
South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph Jr. said that “white supremacy” is very much at work in modern South Carolina and that it is behind the state’s repeated failure to institute hate crime statutes. “This is the first state in America that decided they would go to war with America because of slavery. I don’t know why we would expect anything less than that,” he said. “This is the state that taught America how to hate.”
Data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that the number of hate crimes reported annually in the U.S. has remained more or less consistent over the past decade.