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What Is A Hate Crime?

Amy Sisk
90.5 WESA
Hundreds gathered at the intersection of Murray and Forbes avenues in Squirrel Hill during a memorial vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue Sat., Oct. 27, 2018.

Prosecutors charged the alleged gunman in the shooting rampage at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue with state and federal hate crimes Saturday. 

Forty-six-year-old Robert Bowers, of Baldwin, is accused of killing 11 and wounding 6 during what’s been deemed the deadliest attacks against Jews in the history of the United States.

“The fact that this attack took place during a worship service makes it even more heinous,” said Scott Brady, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, at a news conference Sunday.

“It’s a place of peace, and a place of grace,” he continued. “It’s a place where community comes together to celebrate that they hold most dear and most sacred. And this of course is our first freedom as a people.”

Brady’s office charged Bowers with 15 counts of federal hate crimes for allegedly obstructing the exercise of religious belief during morning services at Tree of Life.

“During the course of his deadly assault on the people at the synagogue,” Brady said, “Bowers made statements regarding genocide and his desire to kill Jewish people.”

Brady noted that 11 of the federal hate crimes charges are punishable by death because they apply to the worshipers who perished in Saturday’s attack.

Pitt law professor and 90.5 WESA legal analyst David Harris said attorneys charge hate crimes to make a strong statement against racial, ethnic, or religious bias.

“It is there so that police and prosecutors can charge not only the underlying assault or robbery or murder,” Harris said, “but also to acknowledge with this crime, that it is done for a purpose that we find repugnant and is additionally punishable.”

To prove hate crimes, Harris said, prosecutors will have to show that Bowers was motivated to harm Jews because of their ethnic or religious identity.

It’s often hard to prove motive, Harris said. But he added that prosecutors will have a strong case if they can show beyond a reasonable doubt that Bowers made anti-Semitic statements during and after the shooting and on social media, as has been reported.

“Social media posts certainly could be part of the evidence that prosecutors use,” Harris said. “Increasingly, police and prosecutors turn to social media posts for evidence of what people have done and even why.”

At Sunday’s media briefing, Brady said his office is considering whether to bring domestic terrorism charges against Bowers.

“It becomes domestic terrorism where there is an ideology that that person then is also trying to propagate through violence,” Brady said. “And so, we continue to see where that line is. But for now, at this place in our investigation, we’re treating it as a hate crime and charging it as such.”

Bowers was in federal custody Sunday, receiving medical treatment for gunshot wounds. He’s set to be arraigned in federal court Monday afternoon.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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