Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old suspected of fatally shooting nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, was indicted on federal hate crime charges on Wednesday — 33 charges in total. Photos of Roof posing next to Apartheid-era flags and the Confederate flag were widely shared after the shooting, and survivors told police that Roof announced that he went to the church that night in June "to kill black people." But what is the history behind the federal hate crime charges brought against Roof, and what are the implications of an indictment?
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was passed in October 2009. It was named after Matthew Shepard, a student in Wyoming who was tortured and killed by a gang that believed he was gay. Around the same time, two white supremacists dragged James Byrd, Jr., a black man, behind a truck until he was decapitated. The 1969 Federal Hate Crimes Law allowed the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute defendants who selected their victims based on race, color, religion, or national origin, but it only gave the department jurisdiction if the victims were engaged in a federally-protected activity, like voting or going to school. Even worse, sexual orientation was not a motivation included under the act.
The new act, once revised, added sexual orientation to the protected categories, and also removed the ridiculous "federally-protected activity" part. Further, it was the first law to provide protection to transgender people, according to NOLO. Another act, the Shepard Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also added increased penalties for the sentences of people convicted under the federal hate crime law. Penalties can be increased by three different levels, and the level of enhancement depends on the facts of the case, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Additionally, six states haven't adopted specific hate crime enhancement legislation, so not all of the above applies in most of those states, including South Carolina. Because Roof will be indicted under federal charges, though, South Carolina's lack of such enhancements shouldn't matter.
The last people to be sentenced on federal hate crime charges were 10 teenagers from Jackson, Mississippi, according to the FBI. In 2011, the teens severely beat James Craig Anderson, a 47-year-old black man, and then intentionally ran him over with a pickup truck. Some of them allegedly yelled racial slurs during the incident. The FBI's Jackson office then launched an investigation and discovered that the teens made and carried out plans — on at least 12 different occasions — to target, harass, or hurt black people in Jackson. They specifically targeted "those they believed were homeless or under the influence of alcohol, because they thought that such individuals would be less likely to report the assault," according to the FBI. All 10 were charged with federal hate crimes, plead guilty to the crimes, and were sentenced to federal prison terms ranging from four to 50 years. The driver of the pickup truck received the 50-year sentence.
A federal hate crime indictment could change the outline of Roof's case, in that motive will be a major focus of the government's case. Not only does the prosecution have to prove that Roof fatally shot nine people in Charleston, but it will also have to prove that his state of mind before or while committing the crime was motivated by hatred for black people. The prosecution could prove this by referencing Roof's actions, the photos of him on the web with Apartheid-era flags, written words of his, and any affiliations he had with racist groups or people.
As far as penalty enhancement goes, the government might not seek them if the prosecution requests the death penalty. But the use of the enhancement law could also help the prosecution in its case for the death penalty. Because Roof's crime targeted a group of black people, the request for enhancements could be more successful, according to the Sentencing Commission.
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