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On the books, it’s “Voluntary Manslaughter.” To activists, it’s a “Hate Crime.”
D.C. didn’t know much about Tony Randolph Hunter when police found his body, “lying supine on the ground” with a “laceration on the back of his head,” near Shaw’s BeBar on the night of Sept. 7. When police initially classified the 37-year-old Maryland man’s beating as a potential hate crime, they did so based on the few details they could ascertain about the victim: who he was and where he was going. The assailants, police reasoned, may have been acting on the same basic information—-that Hunter was gay and headed to a gay bar—-in an attack that had no immediately apparent motive.
In police reports, descriptions of suspects similarly lack specifics. In the case of Tony Hunter, the report identified the suspects as four black males between the ages of 19 and 22, dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts. Other recent attacks against gays produce similar descriptors. In the July 13 beating of Todd Metrokin, the assailants were described as black men between the ages of 17 and 21. In a Sept. 27 incident in Dupont, a gay couple dodged the word “faggot”—-and a heaved brick—-from a black man they later identified as a security guard at the Metropole.
As cases progress, however, assumptions of type give way to particulars. Unlike the cases of Metrokin and the Dupont couple, which police investigators identified as hate-bias motivated, Hunter’s assault was missing one telltale sign of a hate crime: There was no evidence that “faggot” or any other epithet was uttered. Shortly into the investigation of Hunter’s case, police began referring to the beating as an apparent robbery, citing car keys and cash that appeared to be missing from Hunter’s body. By the time Hunter died, succumbing to what the medical examiner described as “Blunt Impact Head Trauma” 10 days after the attack, police had abandoned the suspected motive of anti-gay prejudice. “There is nothing to indicate at this time that this crime was motivated by hate or bias,” wrote police department spokesperson Traci Hughes the day after Hunter’s death. Later that day, Matt Ashburn of the police department’s Gay and Lesbian Liason Unit supported Hughes’ statement, writing: “[T]he crime is NOT classified as a hate/bias crime.”
The hate-crime declassification by police investigators came several days before they had the chance to interview the alleged assailant in the case: Robert “Rob” Hannah, the most wanted of the suspects cited in the police report. Several members of the GLBT community similarly decried the incident as a “hate crime” before Hannah’s identity was made public. Dana Fonville, identifying himself as a friend of Hunter’s, told the Washington Blade, “The police tell us they don’t have evidence that this was a hate crime and that it was a robbery. But the person or persons who did this committed a senseless and hateful act.” During a vigil in Hunter’s honor, the Rev. Abena McCray of D.C.’s Unity Fellowship Church prayed for a victim of hate. “We ask you for a healing, Lord, at this space where someone’s head was beaten for no real reason other than ignorance,” the Blade reports McCray as saying.
Prosecutors, however, have their own standards for determining hate crimes; after reviewing the facts, the U.S. Attorney’s Office chose not to pursue the hate-crime enhancement in Hannah’s case. Special Liaison Unit commander Brett Parson noted that “hate crime” often means different things to police, prosecutors, and the community they serve. “It depends if you’re asking from a legal perspective or a general person’s perspective,” says Parson. “Once the facts become public, the people will draw their own conclusions from it.” In the Hunter case, lack of the legal hate-crime tag has left community members to classify the incident themselves as a type of “unofficial” hate crime. Police and prosecutors could find no hard evidence to pursue a hate-crime investigation; the community, meanwhile, could find no other explanation as to why a gay man was dead.
Last week, police arrested Hannah and charged him with voluntary manslaughter in Hunter’s death. In an affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court, the motive in the case was again modified; in place of the robbery scenario, the incident was now being described as an “altercation.” Despite the previous abandonment of the hate-crime motive, Hunter’s sexual orientation arose again in the affidavit as a potential basis of the attack. In a police interview, Hannah and one other witness claimed that the “altercation” was incited when Hunter sexually assaulted Hannah, coming up behind him, groping his ass and touching his testicles. The witness, an acquaintance of Hannah’s, noted that the victim “appeared to be ‘Gay.'” A different witness on the scene, though, claims a group of men approached Hunter and proceeded to beat him; yet another witness claims to have seen Hannah standing over Hunter’s body and chanting the name of his crew, the Terrace, before leaving the scene. Neither of those witnesses mentions the alleged come-on.
With the lines in the case already drawn, Hannah’s version of events has incited new calls of “hate crime” from the gay community. Todd Metrokin and Chris Farris—-who together led the charge to resurrect D.C.’s Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) group last month—say that the suspect’s very defense in the case is enough to support a hate-crime investigation. “It looks like they’re going with manslaughter because of something we call the ‘gay panic’ defense,” says Metrokin. It’s a defense Farris calls both “familiar” and “repugnant.” “The fact that the suspect is pointing to gayness as an excuse shows the requisite bias,” Farris says. “That the defendant is even coming up with this story shows that it’s a hate crime.”
More pressing than the abandonment of the hate crime classification, Farris and Metrokin say, is the charge of voluntary manslaughter. Farris says the charge indicates that prosecutors have neglected to look beyond Hannah’s “gay panic” story to other possible motives in the case. “It is hard for me to imagine how randomly coming upon somebody and punching them to the point where he falls over and becomes unconscious and then dies is anything short of murder,” says Farris. “I’m not a criminal law expert, but if this is legally not considered murder, we’re going to have to change the law.”
While the determination between manslaughter and murder comes down to discerning the intent to kill, classifying hate crimes means dealing in murkier psychological territory. The District of Columbia passed its hate-crime legislation, the Bias-Related Crime Act of 1989, nearly 20 years ago. According to D.C. code, a hate crime is defined as “a designated act that demonstrates an accused’s prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibility, physical disability, matriculation or political affiliation of a victim.”
A mental bias against homosexuals can be almost impossible to prove without a more concrete expression of it—-written or verbal epithets, for example, or membership in an organized anti-gay group. Even the Dupont couple, who say they dodged a very real brick along with verbal epithets and threats of future intimidation, were told there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute the offender. The U.S. Attorney’s office dismissed the couple’s case; in an e-mail, spokesperson Channing Phillips told Metro Weekly, “as unpleasant and demeaning as ‘name-calling’ may be, words alone are not a crime.” The couple’s validation is also of the unofficial type: According to the Washington Blade, the suspect has been removed from his security post at the Metropole.
Official statistics under-represent crimes within the GLBT community in many ways: According to FBI crime stats, only a female can be raped, for example, and transgender persons are officially ignored. The hate-crime motive is so difficult to determine that reports are nothing if not woefully inaccurate; Farris and Metrokin say their crusade for the hate crime classification is more to make sure crimes against gays go reported than to allow for harsher sentencing of the accused. Still, enough crimes satisfy the necessary criteria to make D.C. a statistical anomaly among states that report hate crime data. As local gay rights activists are quick to point out, the majority of the District’s reported hate crimes are based on sexual orientation bias. In 2006, 60 percent of the 57 hate crimes in D.C. reported to the FBI were biased against sexual orientation; the national average is just over 15 percent. The most recent Police Department stats for 2008 show nearly 75 percent of hate crimes in D.C. to be based on sexual orientation. Less reported, though, is the other strange truth of D.C. hate crime stats: While most hate crimes nationwide are committed by whites, in D.C.—-a city with a 60 percent black population—-many hate-crime offenders are minorities, too.
It is in borderline cases like Hunter’s that this fact—-that hate crimes in D.C. amount to one minority group attacking another—-becomes most complicated. Like Hunter, little is publicly known about Robert Hannah beyond his initial description in the police report. Most can be inferred from Hannah’s photograph on the wanted flyer announcing the warrant for his arrest: Hannah is a black man; at 18 years old, he is slightly younger than the report imagined. The only other info on Hannah, whose name in official reports is spelled with and without the final “h,” is that he’s last known to have resided in a Shaw apartment complex, and that he is connected with the Terrace, which the affidavit describes as “a group of subjects who live in or frequent the areas of 6th & N Street, 7th & N Street, as well as the area of 8th & N Street NW.” In short, we know little more about Hannah than who he was and where he was going.
When BeBar opened in 2006, it situated itself at a borderline of District gentrification, only a few blocks from both Hannah’s apartment and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The little we know about Tony Randolph Hunter indicates that he also represented an intersection of D.C. culture—-Hunter was both black and gay. A Blade piece on the Sept. 30 vigil for Hunter nodded to the divide. “Following a memorial service for Hunter at the church, participants walked about five blocks through the heart of the city’s Shaw neighborhood to the site where Hunter was attacked at 8th and N Streets,” wrote Blade reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. “Before reaching their destination, participants walked past public housing projects that city officials say are home to some of the youth gangs, or crews, that have been implicated in a rash of violent muggings and shootings in the neighborhood.”
Such casual neighborhood glances point to the complicated intersection of biases that comes to play in these unofficial hate crimes. Absent the epithet, hate-group card, or admission of guilt, the importance of a victim’s “actual or perceived” sexual orientation in a crime comes down to the suspect’s perceived bias. Is an after-the-fact excuse—-an invocation of the gay panic defense—-enough to prove prejudice? Or was it always enough that Hunter was a gay black man, and Hannah a straight one? Both sides, in absence of specifics, return to type. “What they’re asking us to believe is that a man from Maryland parked his car to go into a gay bar and on his way walked up to a group of strangers and reached out to one of them and grabbed him below the waist. This is not believable,” Farris says. “Here’s what they know: That a thug says he killed somebody because a guy grabbed his crotch. The bias there is evident.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.