Ruling on hate crimes law due Statute increases punishment when bias is involved

September 21, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Less than a month after striking down the state's cross-burning law, the Maryland Court of Appeals has agreed to decide whether the state's hate crimes statute is constitutional.

Maryland's highest court will hear the appeal of John Randolph Ayers, a Rockville man sentenced to 60 years in prison last year for beating and pouring charcoal lighter fluid on a black woman in a racially motivated attack in March 1992. The woman was rescued by police before the fluid was ignited.

A Montgomery County jury convicted Ayers Nov. 2 after his co-defendant, Sean T. Riley of Silver Spring, testified that the men shouted racial epithets at the woman. Riley was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to several charges.

Ayers was convicted of assault, assault with attempt to maim, kidnapping, a racially motivated crime and conspiracy to commit a racially motivated crime.

Robert L. Dean, senior assistant state's attorney in Montgomery County, said the hate-crime convictions added 30 years to the sentence.

Gary A. Bair, the Maryland attorney general's chief of criminal appeals, said the state's hate-crime law gained strength with a June 11 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a Wisconsin law allowing extra punishment when a victim is targeted for a crime because of his race, religion or gender.

In December, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued a formal opinion defending the constitutionality of Maryland's law, which punishes racially motivated harassment, assault, and destruction and vandalism of property.

The law provides for a separate hate-crime offense when an illegal act is committed because of race, religion or national origin.

It imposes a maximum of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine if the illegal act is a misdemeanor; $10,000 and 10 years if the hate-crime offense is committed along with a felony; and 20 years and $20,000 if the offense is committed along with a felony that results in the death of the victim.

Ayers' lawyer, Victor L. Crawford, who is seeking a new trial for his client, said the Court of Appeals could overturn the law despite the Supreme Court's ruling because the two state laws are different. The Wisconsin law, he said, increases the punishment when race, religious or sex bias is shown during the commission of a crime; the Maryland law provides for a separate crime.

The Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments early next year.

On Aug. 27, the court overturned a state law that prohibited the burning of a cross on someone else's land without the property owner's consent and notification of the local fire department.

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