South Carolina needs a hate crime law

People come to pay their respects to Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Lauren Prescott/Staff)

On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that Dylann Roof had been indicted on 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, related to the murder of nine black men and women at a Charleston church in June.

During her remarks to the press, Ms. Lynch clarified that the indictment alleges that Mr. Roof chose his victims “because of their race and in order to interfere with their exercise of their religion.”

Not that the motive had ever been in doubt.

Standing outside of the Emanuel AME Church on June 17, where six women and three men lost their lives just hours earlier, both Mayor Joe Riley and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen called the murders a hate crime. Other authorities echoed that statement in the following days and weeks.

But even though the Emanuel shooting represents a clear-cut example of a hate crime, it won’t be treated as such in state courts.

“South Carolina does not have a hate crimes statute, and as a result, the state charges do not reflect the alleged hate crimes offense reflected in the federal indictment returned today,” explained Lynch on Wednesday.

In South Carolina, there is no legal distinction between shooting someone in a drug deal gone wrong and gunning down an innocent man because of the color of his skin.

That’s because South Carolina is one of just five states without a hate crime law.

The most recent federal hate crime law, passed in 2009, creates a separate criminal offense for violent crimes driven by race, gender, sexual orientation and a number of other factors. State laws generally provide stronger — rather than separate — penalties for those crimes.

To be sure, Mr. Roof will probably receive the harshest possible penalty if eventually convicted of nine counts of murder and other charges he will face in South Carolina, or the 33 federal charges against him.

Enhanced penalties under a state hate crime law would likely have no additional impact.

But far lesser crimes committed out of hate for a particular group can still send shock waves throughout entire communities.

Indeed, that is often the intention. And that destabilizing, demoralizing, fear-inducing impact warrants a serious punishment.

Take for example, the crime of assault. Beating someone up in a bar fight constitutes a criminal act, with a corresponding penalty. But beating up a black man because he is black, or a gay man because he is gay, or a Jewish man because he is Jewish carries weight beyond just the individuals directly involved.

It sends a message to the respective communities of which those victims are a part, that they might also be at risk.

Clearly, that chilling message demands a more serious societal rebuke than a simple bar fight. But in South Carolina, the penalty is likely to be the same.

Of course, the federal government has the authority to prosecute South Carolinians for hate crimes even without a state law, as it has chosen to do in the case of Mr. Roof. But its authority is limited.

While a federal investigation was quickly announced for the Emanuel AME murders, for example, lesser crimes would not likely command that reaction.

But those less visible crimes can still cause a tremendous negative impact. It makes sense to allow the state to prosecute them with that in mind.

South Carolina Reps. Wendell Gilliard, Seth Whipper and Robert Brown have all authored hate crime legislation on multiple occasions in the past, most recently in January.

None of their bills has made it out of the Statehouse, largely due to concerns about restricting thought and speech. Those are reasonable concerns — current language criminalizes the intent to “intimidate or threaten,” for example.

But a version more narrowly focused on providing stronger penalties for certain violent or aggressive crimes merits consideration.

Almost every public figure who has spoken about the Emanuel AME shooting has rightfully condemned the hatred that drove the gunman to kill.

State law should more closely reflect that condemnation.

Ed Buckley is a Post and Courier editorial staffer.