Hate Crimes

One way to prevent them may be to use the term carefully


When something horrible happens, even if we don't know the people it happened to, we all want to do something. It's only natural. We all want to turn back the clock, undo it, ease it somehow, be absolutely certain it will never happen again. When an act of violence is truly random, though, all that may be impossible.

There's been lots of discussion, mostly among people who haven't made a study of the law, and incited mostly by strangers who live far from Knoxville, of depicting a particularly tragic rape-murder as a racial â“hate crime.â” The agitators have gone further, suggesting that law enforcement and the media are in a quiet conspiracy to minimize the crime by not adding all relevant charges, and by keeping it all quiet.

If, when whites kill blacks, it makes national news as a â“hate crime,â” they say, why is it not a hate crime, and big national news, when blacks kill whites? It's an argument that has attracted some concerned and well-intentioned citizens.

Of course, when whites kill blacks, it's not always a â“hate crime.â” If the motive was a personal dispute, or robbery, or rape, it's not usually categorized as racially motivated.   For those who are foggy about the term, hate crimes are crimes in which the chief motive, as determined by evidence, is animosity toward a social group. They are typically committed for the purpose of the intimidation of that group. Hate crimes are not necessarily more serious than conventional crimes. Burning a cross in someone else's front yard is generally regarded as a hate crime. Most murders are not called hate crimes.

If there's evidence of a racial hate crime here, the prosecution should use it. In the case of the Chipman Street murders, we haven't heard any credible hint that such evidence exists.

Knox County prosecutors aren't shy about tacking on all possibly relevant charges. The defendants are facing more than 40 counts each, including multiple counts of crimes punishable by life in prison or death. It's probably safe to say that there's nobody in America who's in more serious trouble.

And to say that what happened here in January is not a hate crime implies no disparagement of the crime itself. The word around the courthouse is that what happened in January, as described by the conventional laws that have evolved over the centuries to describe all violent crime, may be the worst criminal act in the history of Knoxville. The aggravated rape-murder is generally regarded as the worst of crimes. It doesn't happen every year, but you don't have to be very old to remember that it has happened in our area before.

In 2004, a white 22-year-old woman in Sevier County was kidnapped, raped and savagely mutilated before she died of her injuries. The case got so little attention before the trial that when it did come to come time to pick a jury, less than three years later, several prospective jurors in Sevier County said they were surprised to hear that the crime had even happened.

When finally seated, the jury was so shocked at depictions of the crime that there was some delay in the trial for them to recover. They convicted the suspect of capital murder. The perpetrator was locked up for life. The case never got as much media or Internet attention as the Knoxville murders already have. Convicted rapist-killer John Wayne Blair was technically in the news for three years. He had already been through his entire trial, when many of the details of the crime first became public. However, thanks to the Internet gossip, Google indicates that each of the suspects facing capital murder in the Knoxville killings four months ago are already much more famous than Blair, each mentioned on websites more than 20 times more often.

If these bold vigilantes from across the country are really concerned about answering vicious sex crimes with Internet campaigns and radio patter and courthouse demonstrations, where were they in the 2004 case, and too many other similar cases? Is it different, less odious somehow, when the perpetrator is white?

There seems to be an assumption that interracial crimes tend to be racial in nature. However, any time a criminal, black or white, goes abroad in the city of Knoxville looking for a random victim, chances are more than 4-1 that the victim they find will be white. That's the sort of people who live here, mostly. If those guys had gone out looking for victims and had found a black couple, that fact would have been more remarkable.

Police statements suggest the killers targeted the car first. The likelihood that the victim will be white might therefore be even higher. Whites are statistically more likely to own and drive cars, and affluent whites more likely to own the newer sorts of cars that car thieves like to steal.

Over the last few days, all four parents of the two victims have admirably spoken out that, for the record, they do not consider what happened to their children to be a racially motivated crime. Responding to the prospect of a racist mob is not the sort of thing grieving parents should ever have to do, and they deserve our thanks as a community.  

In 1919, the arrest of a black man in the murder of a white woman on Eighth Avenueâ"just a few blocks from the latest crime sceneâ"sparked irrational speculation, an assembly of angry citizens at the courthouse, and mob violence that left uncounted more blacks and whites dead in the streets of downtown Knoxville.

There hasn't been a racial hate crime this year, yet. The calm deliberation of the police, the prosecutors and the city mayor and the families of the victims may go far toward preventing one.


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