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Church shooting victim's sister, business leader press SC lawmakers for hate crimes law

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Blondelle Gadsden, whose sister Myra Thompson was among the Emanuel AME Chruch shooting victims, urged lawmakers on Wednesday, August 26, 2020, to adopt comprehensive hate crimes legislation. Adam Benson/Staff

COLUMBIA — As one of the last states in America without a hate crimes bill, South Carolina risks losing major economic development opportunities and shielding acts of intolerance from public view since reporting them remains voluntary, advocates told a panel of lawmakers.

Blondelle Gadsden began her testimony Wednesday in front of a S.C. House subcommittee with a roll call of the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston five years ago. Her sister, Myra Thompson, was among the victims.

“They were all victims of a heinous hate crime. These victims will never be forgotten as long as family members live, but it is my hope this bill will give them renewed life,” Gadsden said. “Hate is the most extreme behavior that can be expressed toward others in a negative way.”

Her pastor, the Rev. Eric Manning, argued for lawmakers to adopt hate crimes legislation, a tribute to the acts of forgiveness that family members of those slain showed to the gunman, a white supremacist.

“In doing so, you would follow the example that families set in showing that love is stronger than hate and embracing that we should love our neighbor as ourselves,” Manning said.

Anita Zucker, chief executive of North Charleston-based InterTech Group and one of the state’s wealthiest residents, told legislators there is an economic reason to pass a hate crimes bill that would punish crimes committed because of a victim's race, religion, ethnicity, nationality or sexual orientation.

“Businesses deciding where to locate care a great deal about having their customers and employees protected from hate crimes," she said. "In order to be the best that we can be, we really must have a hate crimes bill."

When the General Assembly gavels back in January, they’ll likely have a suite of pre-filed legislation around criminal justice reform, including a comprehensive hate crimes bill that could mirror previous efforts, state Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, said.

Several of those who testified on Wednesday told lawmakers they intend to hold them to that promise.

A bill advanced in May to the House Judiciary Committee could result in a 15-year sentence and $10,000 fine. Another measure pre-filed in November would increase prison sentences for people who choose their victims solely because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. Neither advanced to floor votes due to the shortened legislative session as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The ranking of being one of three (states) in the country with the distinction of not having a hate crimes bill is long past due, and we intend to do everything we can to make sure we get hate crimes passed in our next general session,” Newton said.

Arkansas and Wyoming are the only other states without hate crime laws.

Whether Gov. Henry McMaster would sign a hate crimes bill is another matter.

“I think we have enough hate crime laws. Those things are hard to define. People forget that we have so many laws,” he said in a 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary debate. “We have laws on the books, and I’ve helped get a lot of them on there, for gangs, for domestic violence, for financial crimes. I don’t think we have a problem with our laws.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 17 hate and extremist groups operating in South Carolina in 2018, up from 14 in 2017 and 12 in 2016.

Key to any planned hate crimes legislation, proponents said, is statewide data collection and mandatory reporting requirements by law enforcement agencies to the U.S. Department of Justice. Currently, that’s voluntary.

In 2016, police identified 23 hate crimes in South Carolina to the FBI — a figure that jumped to 87 in 2017 and 111 in 2018, according to Scott Zweigel, a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeastern board of directors.

“Given that South Carolina doesn't have a hate crimes law and doesn’t have a law to prosecute hate crimes, that reporting could just be the tip of the iceberg,” Zweigel said during the hearing.

As Wednesday’s hearing unfolded, a coalition of faith groups unveiled a “Stamp Out Hate” campaign encouraging the Legislature to advance such legislation and incorporate criminal penalty enhancements, institutional vandalism statutes and law enforcement training, among other aspects. 

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

Benson joined The Post and Courier's Columbia bureau in November 2019. A native of Boston, he spent five years at the Greenwood Index-Journal and has won multiple South Carolina Press Association awards for his reporting.

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