How Do Prosecutors Prove Hate Crimes?

The defendant's actions, words, and affiliations often supply the best evidence of his state of mind when committing a crime—including a hate crime.

Hate crimes, sometimes called bias-motivated crimes, are crimes committed against the victim because of the victim's actual or perceived race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Hate crimes legislation varies from state to state (a few states have no hate crime laws), and some states also protect people who are victimized due to their gender, political affiliation, homelessness, or disability. For general information on hate crimes, see Hate Crimes: Laws and Penalties.

Hate Crime Prosecutions

To secure a conviction for a hate crime, the prosecutor must convince the judge or jury that the defendant committed the underlying criminal act (such as assault or vandalism) and did so with the requisite intent.

Underlying Crime Plus Intent

Not every crime committed against a racial minority or a person who is gay is a hate crime. In order to convict a defendant of a hate crime, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime because of the victim's actual or perceived race or sexual orientation or for some other prohibited reason. Proving that the defendant acted with hate crime intent can be challenging, unless the defendant admits (to police or others) that the crime was motivated by bias.

Intent and Evidence of Bias

Aside from the defendant's own statements, relevant evidence of bias might include:

  • defendant's membership in a group that espouses hatred for certain groups (such as an anti-Asian network or an online chat group that opposes LGBTQ individuals)
  • defendant's possession of literature or symbols associated with bias, such as Nazi memorabilia or anti-Semitic texts
  • defendant's own writings, graffiti, or tattoos
  • the use of biased slurs or graffiti during or at the site of the crime
  • the date of the incident, if it coincides with a significant holiday or anniversary, and
  • other hate crimes committed by the defendant.

For example, in 2012, a man set a fire in a mosque in Toledo, Ohio. He was convicted of a hate crime and the prosecutor presented evidence that he had previously made anti-Muslim statements and said that he wanted to burn down the mosque. In court, the defendant said that he believed that most Muslims are terrorists.

Are Prosecutors Reluctant to File Hate Crime Charges?

Some advocates for victims of hate crimes assert that local prosecutors are reluctant to filed hate crime charges, particularly in communities where bias is widespread. For example, after teenagers yelling ethnic slurs beat to death a Mexican immigrant in Pennsylvania, local police participated in a cover-up of the crime and a state jury convicted two of the defendants of misdemeanor assault. Federal prosecutors stepped in and charged the defendant with a federal criminal civil rights violation, which resulted in a longer prison sentence. For more information, see Federal Prosecutions for Civil Rights Violations.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with a hate crime, talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can make certain that you are not convicted unless the crime is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

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