- Federal prosecutors charged the Buffalo shooting suspect with hate crimes on Wednesday.
- Some had called for federal terrorism charges against the man accused of killing 10 people.
- Experts told Insider that hate crimes charges are the best fit for this case and still carry "significant penalties."
The Buffalo shooting suspect — who is accused of killing 10 Black people at a Tops supermarket last month — was charged on Wednesday with 13 counts of federal hate crimes, prosecutors announced.
But in the aftermath of what authorities said was an attack fueled by racial hate, some demanded the shooting suspect be charged as a terrorist.
Experts told Insider that federal prosecutors' decision to charge the suspect with hate crimes, instead of federal terrorism charges, made sense because it's the right fit for this specific case — bringing the full weight of decades of constitutional authority while also including "significant" punishment — up to and including the death penalty.
The Justice Department announced Wednesday it is charging the 18-year-old white suspect with 10 counts of a hate crime resulting in death, and three counts of a hate crime involving bodily injury and attempt to kill in connection to the May 14 massacre.
Court documents allege the suspect's motive was "to prevent Black people from replacing white people and eliminating the white race, and to inspire others to commit similar attacks."
Additionally, the shooting suspect was charged with 10 counts of the use of a firearm to commit murder and three more counts of the use and discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence.
A New York grand jury previously indicted the suspect on 25 counts that included murder and domestic terrorism.
Brian Levin — director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino — told Insider that the Buffalo shooting suspect was charged with federal hate crimes because he targeted victims on behalf of their race.
"Racial hate crimes — from a constitutional standpoint, because of the post-Civil War amendments — there's a much better case for federal jurisdiction in a wider number of circumstances than with some other categories," Levin said.
He said he believes the Buffalo massacre was the type of attack that officials were planning for when lawmakers passed the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to injure, or try to injure, someone with a dangerous weapon based on "actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin."
"There's a real fit there, and I think the hate crime definitions are a bit tighter for prosecutors to try and prove than terrorism, but we don't even have a terrorism law, domestically," Levin said.
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI special agent, told Insider that FBI domestic terrorism units often prosecute white supremacist violence as hate crimes "because that's a very powerful statute that comes with significant penalties."
German said states work with different laws than the federal government does, so different charges at state and federal levels make sense because prosecutors are trying to use the most effective statutes at their disposal to get a conviction in court.
He said there are dozens of statutes that make up federal crimes of terrorism, many of which apply to what is defined as domestic terrorism. German said federal agents aren't necessarily limited to a narrow set of statutes that fit a specific crime.
"So, if that person who is a domestic terrorist is engaging in identity fraud, you could charge them with that," he said.
Investigators "have the entire federal criminal code to work with, and they can charge whatever is the most significant crime that they can prove all the elements of," German said.
German said one issue with prosecuting hate crimes, however, is that white supremacist violence can fit into so many different categories, it can become less of a priority for investigators — adding that the Justice Department only prosecutes a small number of hate crime defendants each year.
The Buffalo shooting suspect will be "one of the very small number of hate crimes prosecutions that the federal government takes on," he said.
"There is going to be no shortage of authority to prosecute the Buffalo shooter — there is no shortage of energy and resources being devoted to those prosecutions," German said. "So there's no deficiency in that case."
German has argued against new federal laws to fight domestic terrorism, saying that existing laws already provide the government with enough authority.
And Levin highlighted focusing on clamping down on the "proliferation of the weapons of war" used by domestic terrorists as a way to reduce extremist violence.