Atlanta protests following spa shootings against Asian hate
Activists at a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia on March 18, 2021, after shootings left eight people dead.
Megan Varner/Getty Images
  • So far, the Atlanta shooter hasn't been charged with hate crimes for the murders of six Asian women.
  • Hate crimes are hard to prove and are rarely investigated or reported.
  • But experts say there's grounds for the shooter to be charged with both state and federal hate crimes.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

For years Hyun Jung Grant worked tirelessly at the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Georgia to support her family, described by her eldest child Randy Park as a "single mother of two kids who dedicated her whole life to raising them."

Park was left to care for his younger brother after 21-year-old Robert Long shot and killed Grant in a shooting rampage last week, in which five other Asian women were among the eight people killed. Park rejected Long's defense of a sex addiction, the Daily Beast that losing his mother opened his eyes to "the amount of hate that exists in our world."

"To be honest, I didn't think it would happen to me. Nothing has happened to me personally – until now," Park told The Beast regarding anti-Asian hate.

Asian Americans and advocates across the country are calling for Georgia prosecutors and the US Justice Department to pursue federal and state hate crimes charges against Long, who is white. But even as Long faces eight counts of murder and a potential death sentence, experts told Insider that at both the state and federal level, hate crime charges are extremely rare and difficult to prosecute.

Most hateful incidents don't meet legal hate crimes standards

"A lot of times, instances that are hate motivated or are hate crimes are not investigated as such to properly find out that connection," Scott McCoy, the interim deputy legal director for LGBTQ Rights and Special Litigation at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Insider.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Asian American communities have experienced a spike in targeted attacks - made worse by racist rhetoric from former president Donald Trump, who often blamed the pandemic on China by calling COVID-19 "the China virus" and "the kung flu."

Asian American Federation deputy director Joo Han works with AAPI organizations in New York, where communities have been deeply impacted by recent attacks. Even though murder is the most extreme example of racially-motivated violence, members of the AAPI community frequently experience hateful incidents that have a destabilizing effect, according to Han.

"The majority of incidents are verbal assaults," Han told Insider. "When we speak to law enforcement, they say it's difficult to prove racism."

Han said police have also been slow to respond to physical assaults. Police still haven't caught the person who slashed Noel Quintana in the face with a box cutter on February 3. Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American, was on his way to the nonprofit where he works.

"He's going to have that scar forever. He's not able to work. He's having trouble sleeping," Han said. "That very immediate threat creates a lot of fear in the community, the sense of there's danger around every corner now."

Nonprofit reporting center Stop AAPI Hate has recorded 3795 hateful incidents against Asian Americans since March 2020. But the number of reported hate crimes is much smaller: just 122 were reported by police in major cities in 2020.

"The only difference between an incident and a hate crime is whether a state's hate crime statute applies," McCoy said.

What's the difference between federal vs. state hate crimes charges?

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Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, poses in front of a Dallas, Texas mural in May 2020. Arbery's murder led to the creation of Georgia's hate crime statute.
Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo

There are two kinds of hate crime charges: federal and state. Federal hate crime laws allow the US Department of Justice to prosecute crimes committed because of the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. But federal laws differ from state-level hate crime laws, which vary greatly.

Federal prosecutions typically take much longer to kick off. First, the DOJ has to prove the case involves a civil rights violation or a significant federal interest. Then, except in fair housing and constitutional rights cases, the US Attorney General must approve the prosecution in writing. That process can take years.

Meanwhile, at least 47 states and the District of Columbia have state-level statutes defining hate crimes. Only Wyoming, Arkansas, and South Carolina do not. Georgia, where last week's shooting took place, passed a hate crime statute just last year - motivated in part by the racist killing of Ahmaud Arbery by three white vigilantes. The DOJ, which announced its investigation into Arbery's murder as a federal hate crime on May 25 last year, has yet to prosecute his killers.

Georgia's statute covers the same protected classes as federal hate crime law, but mandates prosecutors prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a perpetrator intentionally selected victims based on their protected class. That determination requires thorough investigation.

When Cherokee County sheriff's captain Jay Baker declared in a press conference just hours after Tuesday's shootings that Long wasn't motivated by race, McCoy was skeptical the case had been investigated enough to reach that conclusion.

"Well, how about we investigate?" McCoy said. "And we look at his Facebook and the social media and the groups he was associated with to see whether or not there's any evidence that perhaps he had a bias against Asian American people or women or anyone else."

Instead, an investigation by BuzzFeed News found that Baker himself had posted photos of anti-Asian T-shirts on Facebook in April 2020. On Thursday, Cherokee County's communications director, Erika Neldner, announced she would be replacing Baker as media liaison for the case.

The Atlanta Police Department said in a Thursday statement they are still investigating the motivations for the shooting on Tuesday and haven't ruled anything out.

Some experts say even if investigators can't prove a racial motive, a different motive - Long's claim of eliminating temptation and sex addiction - could qualify the shootings for hate crime charges based on the protected categories of sex and gender.

"There's a whole angle of sexism that comes into play with this case," McCoy said, adding Georgia's hate crime statute includes sex and gender.

However, hate crimes based on sexism are less likely to result in charges, according to McCoy. Attacks on women often aren't identified as hate crimes by investigators but "absolutely can be."

Even without hate crime charges, experts say hateful incidents have lasting impacts on targeted communities

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Demonstrators attend a vigil to mourn the Atlanta shooting victims at Union Square in New York, the United States, March 19, 2021.
Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty

Even if hate crime charges are leveled, Stacey Hervey, an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, told Insider that in Long's case, state or federal charges likely wouldn't make a difference in the sentencing.

Long is already potentially facing the death penalty, meaning hate crime charges at any level likely wouldn't significantly affect his punishment. But McCoy said hate crimes have long-lasting effects that go beyond sentencing. Systemic neglect of hate crimes contributes to a vicious cycle of underreporting, he cautioned.

"When they're not treated as seriously by law enforcement, victims are less likely to report [hate crimes] because they don't have any confidence in law enforcement that their complaints will be treated seriously and investigated," McCoy said.

On Friday, President Biden called on Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act after meeting with Asian American leaders in Georgia. The bill, introduced by Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono and New York representative Grace Meng, would make hate crime reporting available online and in multiple languages.

It would also assign a DOJ employee to speed up review of both federal and state hate crimes.

Han hopes Randy Park and all the victims' families will see the Atlanta shooting case become a rare instance of justice for anti-Asian violence. But in the meantime, Han said community volunteers will continue leading that effort by escorting elders home.

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