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Tolerance for hate groups in Indiana?

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In April 2007, 100-pound Indiana native, Aaron Hall endured hours of torture at the hands of two attackers.

Hall, nicknamed “Shorty” for his diminutive stature, was punched, beaten with a boot, and dragged down a staircase causing his head “to bounce down all the steps” one attacker said.

Hours later, Hall’s attackers texted pictures of his bloodied face to their friends, stripped him of his clothing, and left him for dead in a ditch.

After crawling into a cornfield, Hall died naked and alone, succumbing to exposure and his traumatic injuries.

Garrett Gray, then 19, and Coleman King, 18, stated they beat Hall to death because they believed him to be homosexual and he allegedly made an advance toward one of them.

In 45 other states and the District of Columbia, similar comments and crime would translate to a lengthy sentence for Gray and King, say some legal commentators, including Indianapolis attorney Gary Welsh.

However, in the Hoosier State, the testimony, sometimes described as “the gay panic defense” was actually used to reap the coveted prize of lighter sentences for the pair, said Welsh.

Why? Indiana has no state hate crime law.

Bias crime bill introduced

“If (hate crime law) it was on the books, the prosecutor could have had his feet held to the fire, why aren’t you prosecuting this case,” said Welsh, who writes the blog Advance Indiana.

Besides Indiana, South Carolina, Wyoming, Arkansas and Georgia do not have a state hate crime law.

In previous sessions, Rep. Gregory Porter, a Democrat from the 96th District, has introduced a bias crime bill.

The bill was often targeted by social conservative groups opposed to gay marriage because of its language about sexual orientation, said Welsh. The social conservative groups argued that offering legal protections for gay people targeted in crimes would create a legal framework of rights.

Typically, hate crime or bias bills broaden sentencing options for crimes motivated by race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, disability and other social factors.

Now that gay marriage has been upheld in Indiana, some hope the point is moot and the time is right for a bias crime law.

However, Porter said he’s uncertain House Bill 1330 will win a committee hearing this year, much less become state law. “In the state of Indiana, this type of behavior is acceptable. We accept these (hate) groups, we embrace these groups by not passing this legislation,” he said.

Porter said whether or not presenting the bill is an empty exercise, it is his duty.

“I think what keeps us going is that it’s about the right thing,” he said. “We set policy that should affect all six million Hoosiers. There’s a segment of our population that needs an advocate. That’s me. That keeps me going. I don’t think anyone should be ridiculed, denigrated, beaten for who they are. Unfortunately, that’s the culture that lies out there with certain segments of our population.”

And that segment of the population is substantial, stated Mark Potok, senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups. The group estimates the Hoosier state has 26 hate groups, a figure which includes six chapters of the Klan, as well as Christian Identity, Aryan Nation and Skinheads. The group also regards Nation of Islam as a hate group because it advocates racial separatism, Potok said.

SPLC estimates the vast number of American hate crimes go unreported, in part because reporting practices remain voluntary and vary from state to state, one reason why it’s difficult to say how Indiana “ranks” in comparison with other states, Potok said. However, SPLC researchers believe there are 260,000 hate crimes each year in America. Furthermore, today most hate crimes will be carried out by individuals acting alone, not large members of identified groups acting in concert, Potok said.

Bigger penalties

Although some argue that Hoosier lawmakers should withhold support for an Indiana hate crime law, because the law would not eliminate hate crimes, that is not the point, stated Potok.

“Do hate crime laws prevent hate crimes? It’s questionable,” said Potok. “Do laws against murder prevent murder? To a certain extent they do. Most hate crimes are acts of passion. You lose your temper and wind up beating somebody up.”

More pragmatically, what hate crime laws really do is enhance the offender’s penalty, Potok explained. It’s not a new type of crime, it’s murder, assault, vandalism, whatever it is, they can raise the penalty quite a bit. In some states, it can triple the sentence.

“Without a hate crime law, a serious incident like vandalizing a synagogue with swastikas, could be penalized with little more than the penalty of a traffic ticket,” Potok said.

Communities harmed

This is unjust for many reasons, he said. “They can be incredibly traumatizing crimes, and the crimes target a much larger group than the individual. If you burn a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple’s lawn, it’s not just them. Every interracial couple is also in effect victimized. It’s a form of terrorism.”

Such crimes also strain the social fabric of community, Potok said.

“The other aspect is that hate crimes tend to divide preexisting fault lines, lines of race, religion, and so on, they can be particularly destructive to communities.”

“Hate crime laws are important, they’re a declaration of the community that these crimes are unacceptable,” he added. “The classic hate crime is the first Black family who moves into the white neighborhood, and someone spraypaints their home, ‘n——r go home.’ There have been many cases where the white neighbors then go out of their way to show they don’t support that. It can be a catalyst.”

Even though there is no state hate crime law, there is recourse through federal law, Potok said. The feds could come in and prosecute. What typically happens, federal prosecutions are 20, 30 a year. Sometimes they’ll come in on a case that’s gotten a lot of press for some reason, or the state doesn’t have a law.

In the final analysis, Indiana’s rejection of hate crime legislation is a blemish on its reputation, Potok said. “What is really speaks to is the very conservative politics of the Indiana legislature,” he said.

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