A hateful crime Alleged hate-crime scheme cheapens fight against real cases of racism.

July 15, 1996

FEW THINGS are as despicable as crimes inspired by hatred of a person's race, religion or sexual persuasion. But one of those things might be lying about being a victim of such a crime for financial gain.

Sadly, that is what allegedly happened in North Laurel last April, when Sonia James, a 27-year-old African-American woman, told police that someone broke into her apartment, spray-painted racial epithets on the walls and destroyed belongings.

Reports of the incident rightly shocked, angered and embarrassed Howard County, which prides itself on racial diversity and tolerance. Community leaders and elected officials expressed appropriate outrage and condemnation. Horrified neighbors showed their humanity in a time of terror by pouring money into a fund established at a North Laurel bank and donating furnishings to replace the family's belongings.

Through it all, Ms. James repeated her story, even as it captured newspaper headlines and TV coverage as the worst hate crime in recent memory in Howard County. She cut a sympathetic figure days after the damage was reported when she appeared at a meeting at the Seasons Apartments in North Laurel. Police at the meeting desperately but vainly tried to answer questions by worried neighbors.

Last week brought an even more disturbing allegation: No racial crime was committed. Police say Ms. James played on fears of racism to make a profit for herself and has confessed to staging the vandalism to illegally collect insurance money. She was arrested on criminal charges.

Falsely reporting such an extreme act of racial hatred is like a boy crying wolf in a village where carnivorous creatures remain a threat. We're reminded of the teacher in Howard County two years ago who stabbed herself but initially contended she had been attacked in class, bringing undue condemnation on her high school.

Ms. James deserves her day in court. Despite her reported confession, she remains innocent until proven guilty. But the court system ought to deal harshly with anyone whose actions could lead others not to show care or concern when next a legitimate case of racial hatred strikes home.

Pub date: 07/15/96

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