Federal hate-crimes law won't stop murderous sprees

July 15, 1999|By Linda Chavez

WHAT IS it that motivates someone to kill another person, especially a stranger? And should one motive be punished more severely than any other?

Yes, if the motive happens to be hatred based on race, religion or sexual orientation, according to a group of civil-rights activists who met Monday with President Clinton to discuss strategies for pushing new hate-crimes legislation.

Although earlier versions of proposed federal hate-crimes laws have faltered, the recent murderous rampage through Illinois and Indiana by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith -- who killed two people and injured nine others before apparently taking his own life -- and the arrest of Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams, two brothers accused of killing a homosexual couple in Northern California, may have added new impetus for such legislation.

Smith and the Williams brothers have been linked to the World Church of the Creator -- no traditional religious denomination but a virulently racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian hate group that has been implicated in several attacks on members of racial and religious minority groups around the country.

It would be great if passing a new law would reduce the number of murders such as these -- or even make it more likely that those who assault or kill be prosecuted successfully. But there is no evidence that federal hate-crimes legislation would achieve either of these goals. As it is, hate crimes appear to be -- thankfully -- a small fraction of the homicides and assaults committed every year in the United States.

Relatively few incidents

According to the FBI, eight people were murdered in 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, because of their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Some 1,237 people were victims of aggravated assault for those reasons.

Two whites and three blacks were murdered because of their race in 1997, and three male homosexuals were murdered because of their sexual orientation, according to the FBI. But these figures represent only about 0.04 percent of all murders and non-negligent manslaughters nationally.

Of course, proponents of hate-crime legislation argue that these statistics are the tip of the iceberg. Who knows, they may be right. Many such cases go unreported, they say. Who is to say that suspected serial murderer Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, arrested this week in connection with as many as eight murders nationwide, may not have targeted his alleged victims because of their race -- all were white. Or what about recently convicted serial murderer Charles Ng, a Chinese immigrant and former U.S. marine who sexually tortured and killed six men, three women and two baby boys in California in the 1980s?

It is impossible to know what goes on in the twisted and vicious mind of a killer. And in the final analysis, what should it matter what motivated these murderers?

Justice served

Ng will die by lethal injection because of his crimes; Smith apparently chose to take his own life when the police chased him down and were about to arrest him. Similarly, John William King sits on death row in Texas for the horrifying killing of James Byrd, a disabled black man who was dragged to death by King. Two other men await trial in the same murder.

The promoters of hate-crime legislation seem to believe that we still live in a country where racists and anti-Semites go free if they commit crimes against racial or religious minorities.

In the past, civil-rights advocates sought to prosecute racist killers for violations of federal civil-rights laws because all-white juries wouldn't convict them of murder if the victims were black. Such is not the case today.

Rather than focusing on redefining crime based on motive, the proponents of new hate-crime legislation should focus their efforts on the strict enforcement of existing laws and tough penalties for those who are convicted.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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