On September 20, a jury convitcted 16 Amish residents of Ohio of hate crimes for cutting the hair and beards of a rival Amish community. The ironically named Samuel Mullet is accused of leading the attacks. Just your typical case of Amish hair-related gang violence.
Now convicted, the defendants may face life in prison. Why? Because the rival Amish community acted out of a religious disagreement, they are being prosecuted not for harassment but for committing hate crimes.
Hate crimes are an extremely serious legal offense. Specific legislation addressing hate crimes began in the mid 1990s, though its legal origins may be found in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Generally, these laws require an increase in penalties if the crime was committed on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender.
The legal status of hate crimes has long been a topic of serious debate. It is, understandably, a touchy subject. But it is an important subject as well and therefore one worthy of a healthy dose of skepticism.
The actions of the defendants in Ohio may have been barbarous (or barberous, for that matter), but do they constitute a hate crime? More importantly, do they warrant life in prison?
Discrimination of this sort is wrong. However, killing a human for despicable reasons yields the same result as killing for just mildly unappealing reasons. Somebody ends up dead.
The great irony behind the questionable legal status of hate crime is that critics can argue against the law itself as an unfair, discriminatory law. Why should crimes based on discrimination be considered worse than crimes based on jealousy or alcoholism? Why is it worse to murder out of homophobia or racism than out of sadism? This is not to say that I’d rather share a beer with a racist than with a sadist (given the choice, I’d probably stay home). I simply do not understand why our legal system should dictate which motive for murder is worse.
Hate crime law is relatively unprecedented because most other qualifications for motives work the other way by providing a degree of leniency instead of a harsher penalty. These are legal defenses designed to decrease culpability. Crimes of passion, for example, are considered in “heat of the moment” and often result in lighter punishments. The same applies to necessity, duress, and self-defense, all recognized as extenuating circumstances. A distinction such as “exceptional brutality” does, in fact, increase the penalty, but it does not qualify the motive and rather concerns additional crimes committed. The lack of similar precedent does not necessarily invalidate hate crime as a legal distinction, but it certainly warrants greater skepticism.
Other legal qualifications put the status of hate crime in tricky legal waters. The insanity defense exempts from full punishment those who cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Therefore, those who support the distinct legal standing of hate crimes must be sure not to imply that racism is wrong. If racism were to be legally defined as “wrong,” then any defendant holding to his or her racist convictions clearly does not know the difference between right and wrong. The prosecution could never equate racism with insanity or a mental disability, though, of course, the comparison is tempting.
Most importantly, in my opinion, where do you draw the line? There surely must be some rather problematic situations where the basis of discrimination is ambiguous. I can just imagine the court proceeding: “Well, your honor, the defendant made a snide remark about dental hygiene before killing his British victim. Two life sentences!”
Even putting aside the difficult task of discerning what qualifies as a hate crime, the law does not clearly state to which crimes in particular the law applies. For example, murder, assault, and arson are all felonies and may qualify as potential hate crimes. However, can other felonies become hate crimes? Can someone sell drugs as a hate crime? Or what about lesser offenses; can there be jaywalking, loitering, mail fraud, or copyright infringement hate crimes?
Moreover, it is hard to distinguish whether what occurred in Ohio should count as a hate crime at all. After all, this was Mennonite-on-Mennonite crime. At any rate, almost all crimes are committed out of hate and I question whether this should really matter in the first place. Whether you murder out of deep-seated prejudice or because you lost a bet, murder is murder.
Sarah R. Siskind ’14 is a government concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.