A vicious, apparently racially motivated attack on two black women in Montgomery County last week focused new attention on the state's little-used hate-crimes law.
Two white men have been charged under the hate-crimes statute in a Wheaton incident in which one of the men allegedly beat a 39-year-old black woman, stripped her half-naked, doused her with charcoal lighter fluid and tried to set her ablaze.
Police allege that the men, John R. Ayers Jr., 21, of Rockville and Sean T. Riley, 19, of the Wheaton area had been drinking and were cruising Georgia Avenue early Tuesday morning, "hunting" for black victims, purportedly in retaliation for having been called a racially derogatory name by three black men the previous Friday.
Besides the hate-crimes violations, the two men face more serious charges, including attempted murder. They also were charged under the hate-crimes law with an earlier assault on a 15-year-old black youth in the Glenmont area.
Although experts say bias crimes are increasing nationwide, Maryland's hate-crimes law has only figured in about a dozen convictions since it was enacted in 1988, said Eric P. Johnson of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission.
Two of the convictions involved white-supremacist Skinheads who severely beat an Asian-American man in a Montgomery County park in 1989.
Charging a suspect under the hate-crimes law "helps the victim to know that what happened to them is being recognized for what it is," Mr. Johnson said.
The law prohibits crimes against people or property because of "race, color, religious beliefs, or national origin." It also punishes vandalism of churches, synagogues, cemeteries and religious schools.
In the Wheaton case, the men charged could face up to 10 years in prison and $10,000 fines -- in addition to any sentences on other charges -- if convicted of committing a hate crime.
Howard Merker, a Baltimore County deputy state's attorney, said judges, prosecutors and police still are learning how to use the hate-crimes law.
"It's being put before judges. They're seeing it," Mr. Merker said. "We would like to see more convictions in that area."
Alexander Palenscar, Baltimore's deputy state's attorney for operations, said he couldn't recall city prosecutors having convicted anyone under the statute, but that "our people do know about it."
Some 138 assaults motivated by race or religion were reported and 80 were verified in Maryland in the first six months of 1991, the most recent statewide figures available, according to the Maryland Human Relations Commission.
Montgomery County reported 35 complaints of assaults motivated by race or religion last year. The county, Maryland's largest, has a rapidly growing black, Asian and Hispanic population that now accounts for a quarter of Montgomery residents.
This week's Wheaton incident was one of the most violent reported there in the past decade.
"In itself, the incident was definitely aberrant behavior," Mr. Johnson said. "But it certainly does bring to mind the racial tensions in the country and in our community."
State Sen. Mary Boergers, a Rockville Democrat, said Montgomery's increasing diversity "has tremendous value, but it also can lead to ethnic antagonism," especially in hard times.
Ms. Boergers is behind a legislative effort to broaden the language about vandalism in the hate-crimes law to include public institutions as well as religious property. A Senate committee has approved the bill. The House of Delegates has passed a similar measure sponsored by Del. James W. Campbell, a Baltimore Democrat.