Proving Hate Crime Motivation Is Difficult, Says Criminologist

Expert Jack Levin offers insight on Chapel Hill, N.C. shooting
February 14, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

While authorities continue to investigate whether the shooting of three Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C. Tuesday constituted a hate crime, criminologist Jack Levin says hate crimes in the country are underreported and infrequently prosecuted.

Prosecutors must show that the perpetrator’s motivation was primarily driven by bias. “You have to show that the difference between the perpetrator and the victim was a major determinant,” said Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. He has studied and written about hate crime, mass murderers, serial killers, and other violent criminals for over 25 years.

A Killer’s Motive

Determining motivation requires getting inside the mind of the perpetrator—an extremely difficult task for investigators. Some signs police typically look for are: whether the perpetrator voiced any slurs or epithets, left graffiti at the crime scene, or committed the crime in a location where similar hate crimes had been committed before.

But because of the high burden of proof to show the suspect’s motivation, hate crimes are seldom prosecuted, Levin says. A total of 5,928 hate crime incidents were reported to local law enforcement across the country in 2013, according to the latest data collected by the FBI. This number is far smaller than the 293,800 people over 12 who reported that they were victims of hate crimes in 2012, according to the latest U.S. Department of Justice survey.

In the case of the North Carolina shootings, where Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, Razan Abu-Salha were killed, the suspect Craig Stephen Hicks was their neighbor. Levin says the majority of hate crimes are committed against complete strangers.

“When there is a previous relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, it becomes much more difficult to determine the motivation,” Levin said, because there may be other contributing factors to the motivation.

The person may dislike the victim because of previous disputes, or feel jealous of them, for example. Chapel Hill police said their initial investigation suggested Hicks was motivated by a disagreement over parking space.

It’s possible that the parking dispute was a “precipitant or triggering episode” for anti-religious or anti-Muslim sentiment, says Levin. Hicks has posted numerous anti-religious messages on his Facebook account, deriding anyone with a religious faith.

Levin says hate should not be ruled out in this case. “When it’s [the crime] out of proportion to the reality of the argument, then you have to wonder maybe something else is going on,” he said.

The Necessary Evidence

Hicks’s Facebook posts may not be concrete evidence of his bias, says director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, Steven Freeman. The prosecution must make an explicit connection between Hicks’s messages and the crime—that his sentiments led him to target those victims.

A more incriminating piece of evidence would be if Hicks left a message expressing hatred on the day the crime was committed.

If Hicks possessed hatred toward people with any religious identity versus people of Muslim faith in particular, does the evidence to charge Hicks differ? Freeman says it doesn’t, because current laws do not make a distinction between what kind of religion a victim is targeted for. Hate crime laws protect victims from violence based on their religion regardless.

But if Hicks is charged with hatred against people of religious identities in general, it would be the first such case in the country, Levin said.

Follow Annie on Twitter: @annieeenyc