Gay-rights foes, apathy, derail S.C. hate-crime bills

A black family’s house, garage and truck were peppered with pellet holes near Hollywood. A man was beaten and robbed in Ladson by assailants who he said told him they did it because he was white. A cross-dressing man in North Charleston was shot dead. And now nine church members have been killed.

Crimes that could well be hate crimes aren’t reported often in the Lowcountry, but they are reported. But a hate-crime law in South Carolina has been stymied in part by legislators’ resistance to supporting gay rights. That and a series of objections have kept the issue in limbo for nearly two decades.

South Carolina remains one of five states that doesn’t have a hate crime law, along with Arkansas, Wyoming, Georgia and Michigan. That’s why the Emanuel AME Church shootings are being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department as a hate crime that could be prosecuted under federal law.

In the wake of the shootings, state Reps. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, and Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, plan to resubmit bills that would define hate crimes and let prosecutors seek harsher penalties for them. But earlier bills have run into objections that range from whether a hate-crime law is a gay rights issue to if the law is needed.

“A lack of concern. Apathy,” Gilliard said about what he met with an earlier bill. “If you don’t have people who have experienced these things, they could care less.”

Legislation that would toughen penalties for crimes prosecuted as hate crimes has been introduced repeatedly in the General Assembly since a series of black church burnings across the South in the late 1990s. But the earlier laws were debated in the shadow of a national debate over whether the laws should apply to the 1996 killing of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming because he was gay.

The early bills, which gained active support from gay community groups, almost immediately were framed as gay-rights laws. That made them toxic in the eyes of a lot of legislators. One bill passed a Senate vote, but most were left to idle in committees or subcommittees.

In 2000, Rabbi Edward M. Friedman, of Synagogue Emanu-El Conservative Congregation, spoke in favor of hate-crime legislation to protect homosexuals and other minorities. The late John Graham Altman, then a state representative, told the rabbi he was taking God’s biblical word in vain by defending gays and would go to hell for it.

In 2001, then Attorney General Charlie Condon dropped his support for a hate-crime law after learning it would include crimes against gays.

Among the objections voiced by legislators over the years were:

Questions about the constitutionality under state law of hate-crime legislation.

How it would affect prosecution of the crimes.

If it was enforceable.

The need for a hate-crime law since it was already addressed in the state’s civil rights laws.

Even in the wake of the nine deaths at the church, two local legislators differed on the effectiveness of hate-crime legislation.

“I think we can deal with it. I would support it,” said Rep. Mike Sottile, R-Charleston.

“To me, somebody who does something like that (the church shooting), obviously hates,” said Rep. Eddie Southard, R-Moncks Corner. He didn’t see what difference it would make to prosecute that serious a crime as a hate crime.“You can only electrocute a person one time.”

South Carolina lawmakers’ arguments against special hate-crime legislation have mirrored those in other states, said Winthrop University political scientist and pollster Scott Huffmon. “They say, ‘Look, it’s already a crime. We already have criminal penalties for attacks and vandalism. There doesn’t need to be something additional.’”

There is resistance to legislating and enforcing hate crimes across the Deep South, said Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The laws passed generally have been weak, she said. “There’s no willingness on the part of politicians to do anything for the gay community,” she said, and there’s the “tortured history” of race relations.

Local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina reported 51 hate crimes in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Almost 65 percent of those crimes were motivated by racial bias. That’s data submitted from just 39 of 418 participating law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. The rest reported “zero.”

While the FBI counted fewer than 6,000 hate crimes across the country in 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates more than 200,000 hate crimes are committed each year.

“We’re in denial. We live in a state where certain people get treated a certain way, and we say nothing. There’s a willingness of people to keep quiet and not get involved,” said Dot Scott, NAACP Charleston branch president.

Robert Behre and Deanna Pan contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.