On Wednesday, 18-year-old Robert Hanna was arrested in relation to the September death of Tony Randolph Hunter. Hanna is being charged with voluntary manslaughter in the death of Hunter, a gay man, but some community members are more concerned with a charge that hasn’t been levied against Hanna: “Hate crime.” The Sept. 7 attack on Hunter—-along with several other recent acts of violence against gays—-has galvanized D.C. GLBT activists, many of whom are referring to the incident as a “hate crime“—-even as D.C. Police classify it otherwise.
In a Wednesday press conference, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier stated that as far as MPD and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is concerned, the Hunter case is not a hate crime. In a statement, Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) Community Outreach Specialist Matt Ashburn wrote, “Of particular interest to members of the GLBT community,Chief Lanier stated the case was thoroughly reviewed by prosecutors at the United States Attorney’s Office and there is no evidence to support a hate crime enhancement.”
Lanier also noted that investigators in the case have ruled out another suspected motive: robbery. MPD is now describing the events leading to Hunter’s death simply as an “altercation between Mr. Hunter and Mr. Hanna.”
But with the robbery motive abandoned, how is it decided whether or not an “altercation” is motivated by hate?
According to Brett Parson, acting lieutenant of the MPD’s Special Liaison Unit, the hate-bias determination is made at three levels: First, by the officers who respond to the scene; second, by the police investigators assigned to the case; and third, by the District Attorneys who prosecute the accused.
In this case, says Parson, “the initial officers that responded to the scene did indicate that it was a potential hate bias crime,” Parson explains, emphasizing the term “potential.” Officers “based that [determination] on the geographic location and the lack of any other evidence,” he says. “They felt that they should raise the issue and that it should be looked into.” Parson says that the MPD Homicide Dept. investigators assigned to the case, Detectives Jacqueline Middleton and Jed Worrell, did look into the hate/bias issue—-and found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support the classification. “Homicide did in fact look into it,” says Parson. “They found that it did not reach that level. It did not pass that threshold.”
The hate crime enhancement can be difficult to satisfy, as it applies to a specific aspect of a suspect’s motive: their “prejudice.” In the District of Columbia, hate crimes are classified under the “Bias-Related Crime Act of 1989” (22 D.C. Code 3701). According to the statute, a hate crime is: “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, family responsibility, physical handicap, matriculation or political affiliation of a victim of the subject designated act.” A factsheet released by MPD’s Gay and Lesbian Liason Unit (GLLU) clarifies that a hate crime “is motivated, in whole or in part, by an offender’s bias.”
Parson says that in this case, investigators and prosecutors failed to uncover substantial evidence that bias played a role in the altercation. Though he says he “cannot discuss any statements made by any witnesses,” he does say that MPD has no evidence that Hanna used “any overt words or epithets” during or leading up to the altercation with Hunter, and that Hanna does not appear to have any pattern of attacks against gays.
Still—-shouldn’t police wait to determine a subject’s “prejudice” until after the suspect is found? Police mouthpieces began insisting against the hate crime classification as early as Sept. 18, the day after Hunter’s death (Hunter died ten days following the altercation with Hanna). “There is nothing to indicate at this time that this crime was motivated by hate or bias,” wrote MPD spokesperson Traci Hughes, on Sept. 18. Later that day, GLLU’s Ashburn supported Hughes’ statement, writing: “the crime is NOT classified as a hate/bias crime.”
The statements came nearly a full month before Hanna’s arrival into police custody, and 20 days before the warrant was issued for his arrest. [UPDATE: The Blade reported today that Hannah “spoke with homicide investigators Sept. 22.”]
Parson said yesterday that he was unfamiliar with the time-line of MPD statements on the issue, but did insist that the hate crime possibility was fully investigated at the level of both the police department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Parson did caution that “hate crime” can mean different things to the police and to 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. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has come to the conclusion that this case did not reach the criteria to charge as a hate/bias crime. Whether or not that’s the same conclusion that the public will make will have to wait until after they’ve heard all the facts.”