As the murder cases in Kansas City show, the US’s system for punishing bias crimes is filled with limits and inconsistencies.
Kansas City: Dionte Greene, a 22-year-old black gay male, was looking for a hook-up. He reached out to an 18-year-old stranger on Facebook.
“I’m not interested in smoking weed with you, Travone,” Greene wrote to the teenager, Travone Shaw, in their first exchange. “I just find you attractive and I want to have a sexual encounter with you.”
“I ain’t gay,” Shaw replied, according to court documents. “Bro, stop in boxing me.”
But hours later, Shaw contacted Greene twice and invited him to get high on marijuana. “You going to come over tonight when you get off of work?” Shaw asked.
Just after midnight on October 31, 2014, Greene drove to meet the younger man. Three and a half hours later, police discovered Greene’s body in his idling gold Dodge Stratus, with a single bullet in the right side of his head.
Shaw was convicted last month of involuntary manslaughter and stealing in connection to Greene’s death. He faces upto 29 years in prison. But in the view of this city’s LGBT community, law enforcement should have prosecuted the killing as a hate crime.
Greene’s family and friends say Shaw and an accomplice lured, robbed and killed Greene because he was gay. Shaw posted anti-homosexual slurs on his Facebook profile nine times in the eight months before the killing.
Law enforcement officials said they did investigate the killing as a hate crime. A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office in Kansas City said, “The investigation did not turn out sufficient evidence to support [hate crimes] charges.” The FBI declined to comment on its investigation.
Local officials said they too would struggle to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that anti-gay bias was the motive at the moment of Greene’s murder. They also said a hate crimes murder conviction does not bring additional jail time in Missouri.
State prosecutors charged Shaw with murder, but not hate crime.
“After sitting at the trial, I don’t think those two people were just there to steal his phone,” said Melissa Brown, a local LBGT advocate. She cited Shaw’s use of the prospect of sex to lure Greene to the meeting and his anti-gay slurs on Facebook.
Shaw’s lawyer, Paige Bremer, did not respond to a request to comment.
The handling of Greene’s death is one of three killings of LGBT people in Kansas City since 2010 that, advocates say, should have been pursued much more vigorously as hate crimes. They say there are unresolved questions about whether the three – all of whom were black or Latino – were attacked because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or race.
The massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Florida, gay bar by a self-professed jihadist has put a spotlight on hate crimes against LGBT people. As the murder cases in Kansas City show, the US’s system for punishing bias crimes is filled with limits and inconsistencies.
Seven years after landmark federal legislation recognised attacks on LGBT people as hate crimes, no comprehensive nationwide system exists for tracking bias crimes. And while 30 states have enacted similar laws, criminologists say many of them are poorly written and make convictions difficult.
No comprehensive, nationwide programs exist to train police and prosecutors in how to properly investigate hate crimes. And members of the LGBT community said police frequently react with indifference or hostility when hate crimes are reported.
Prosecutors say proving a hate crime can be difficult and can weaken their overall argument to a jury. But some criminologists say prosecutors have a duty to pursue hate crimes convictions nevertheless, because bias attacks terrorise entire communities, not just individuals.
“It is important to charge, even if you’re not going to get a few more years, because you’re telling the community you will not tolerate this,” said Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, who studies hate crimes. “But many prosecutors will not take that risk.”
LGBT activists say violence against the community is increasing, particularly against transgender women of colour. Twenty-four LGBT or HIV-positive people were murdered in the US in 2015 because of their sexual orientation, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an LGBT advocacy group.
Legal scholars said many state statutes were written quickly when politicians were under pressure to act on the issue. The result is a hodgepodge of standards of proof and sentences that confuse juries and judges.
In Delaware, the minimum sentence for defendants convicted of committing a bias-motivated murder is doubled, but many other states provide no such enhancement. In Iowa, meanwhile, attacking someone because of their “political affiliation” is a hate crime. In Louisiana, attacking a police officer is a hate crime. Last year, New Jersey’s state supreme court threw out part of its hate crimes law because the standard of proof was too vague.
“The criminal codes vary the same way vegetable soup does from region to region,” said Peter Joy, head of Washington University’s Criminal Justice Clinic in St. Louis, Missouri. “Everyone throws in their own ingredients and comes up with their own recipe.”
Created by the 1968 Civil Rights Act and expanded by Congress in 1994 and 2009, hate crimes laws are designed to add additional punishments to crimes motivated by bias against the victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation.
The Obama administration has doubled federal hate crimes prosecutions since taking office, according to a spokesman for the US department of justice. But the number of cases is still small.
All told, over the last seven years, the Obama justice department has brought 33 federal hate crimes cases, the spokesman said. Eleven involved discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nine of the 13 defendants in those cases were convicted, with one case pending.
On a state and local level, there is no system that reliably tracks the number of hate crimes reported or prosecuted. An Federal Bureau of Investigation hate crimes database, derived from voluntary reporting by police departments, lists 1,178 reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 2014.
But a justice department survey of crime victims that same year found 50 times that number – 59,000 people – who said they were victims of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. About half of all the victims surveyed said they did not report the attack to police.
“We don’t believe in police,” said Arianna Lint, a Peruvian transgender woman who runs TransLatina, a support group for transgender women of colour in south Florida. “In small towns, they call us ‘freaks’ and ‘it’. ”
Distrust in south Florida
In interviews in the Miami area after the Orlando killings, ten transgender women told Reuters that they and others in their community are reluctant to report bias crimes because of a mistrust of the police.
Among them is Payton Hale, 26. Hale, who is transgender, said she was leaving a bar in Hollywood, Florida, with a friend in the early hours one night in July 2015 when a group of people started to yell slurs at her – “faggot,” “queer” and “tranny”.
As Hale got into her car, a woman from the group ran across the street and began hitting and scratching her, Hale said. A male joined the assault, punching Hale several times in the face.
Hale blacked out. When she regained consciousness, she was covered in blood. The attack left Hale with a fractured nose and three damaged front teeth, hospital and dental records reviewed by Reuters show.
Hale and her friend said the two police officers who responded to the crime failed to pursue the attackers. The perpetrators, they said, were still across the street when police arrived minutes after the attack. Hale’s friend, Pettus “Karma” Deerman, videotaped the interaction with the police.
“This is the cops standing here not doing any fucking thing,” Deerman says in the footage. “They wanted to go ahead and sit here and question us because we’re transgendered. They weren’t worried about the people who victimised my friend right here.”
The police report describing the incident paints a different picture. The officers wrote that Hale was “extremely uncooperative.” They also said she did not give a clear description of the assailants.
In the footage, Deerman describes the female attacker as wearing “a white and black dress” and having “dark hair” and mentions a male attacker. Hale also tells the officers she was attacked because she was transgender.
In the section of the report that requires police to say whether the officer suspects the crime was “hate / bias motivated,” the officer wrote “unknown”.
A spokesperson for the Hollywood police department cited the police report, which says the officers checked the area for “a male suspect in a white dress”, a different description than the one Deerman gives them in the video. The spokesperson said the officers needed more evidence to declare the case a suspected hate crime.
McDevitt, the Northeastern University professor who studies hate crimes, said he has found bias among police officers toward transgender people.
“The transgender community is probably where the gay community was in the 1980s,” he said, referring to police bias. “Police are not in many cases receptive. They blame the victim for being transgender and somehow deserving of being attacked.”
Hale said her encounter made her lose faith in the police.
“I’m afraid that I could be murdered and the police would literally just kind of brush me away from them,” Hale said in an interview, “like it’d be no big deal.”
A hate crime or a robbery?
In Kansas City, the handling of the recent string of murders has unsettled many LGBT people interviewed by Reuters.
On the night he died, Greene told a friend he was going to meet someone to have sex. Before leaving his house, Greene traded texts with Shaw, or his accomplice, that police later said “were in reference to performing sexual acts”.
As Greene drove to meet the men who would kill him, he called his best friend and kept him on the phone. Greene thought the 18-year-old was cute, but was nervous about encountering two strangers.
Greene parked on a deserted street and wondered if it was the right address when two men approached the car. Greene kept his cell phone on, so his friend could listen. It was 12:45 am.
Greene’s voice grew tense, the friend later testified, as Greene, Shaw and Shaw’s friend drove off looking for marijuana. At 1:05 am, Greene’s phone cut off.
Law enforcement officials said Kansas City police deemed the killing “a robbery gone bad” because Greene’s cell phone was missing.
During Shaw’s trial, prosecutors argued that Shaw and his friend used Greene’s homosexuality to lure him to the meeting where he was killed. Shaw’s lawyer argued that he was an unwitting accomplice who had no idea his friend planned to rob Greene at gunpoint.
Shaw was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and robbery in May but acquitted of murder. He faces anywhere from probation to 29 years in prison when he is sentenced next month. His friend, who has pleaded not guilty, will be tried for murder in October.
Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the state prosecutor’s office in Kansas City, said he could not comment on a pending case. But he said the office took hate crime allegations very seriously.
“We do look to see whether evidence supports filing a hate crime,” he said in an email.
Another case that members of the LGBT community in Kansas City say should have been prosecuted as a hate crime is the Christmas Eve 2011 murder of Darnell “Dee Dee” Pearson, a transgender woman. Pearson’s killer, Kenyan Jones, shot Pearson after paying her for sex and then learning Pearson was transgender, according to court records.
Jones obtained a gun, hunted down Pearson and shot her at point blank range, the court records said. Convicted of murder but not a hate crime, Jones was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Law enforcement officials said the evidence in the case did not merit a hate crimes prosecution. Friends of Pearson, however, believe she was targeted because she was transgender.
Police are also investigating whether a third killing in Kansas City is a hate crime, as members of the LGBT community contend. Last August, a transgender woman named Tamara Dominguez was run over twice by a truck in a parking lot.
Kansas City law enforcement officials say the safety of the LGBT community is a top priority. After the killings in Orlando, the rainbow flag flew at half staff above the Kansas City state courthouse.
The city, whose population is 69% white and 30% black, has its first African American police chief. The force includes a diversity unit and a liaison to the LBGT community.
On crime reports, police are required to check a box to indicate whether they believe bias may have played a role. The Kansas City Anti-Violence Programme, a local LGBT advocacy group, conducts sensitivity training for local police.
In an interview, the Kansas City police department spokeswoman Kari Thompson said police comprehensively investigate all attacks against the LGBT community.
“We approach it according to the law. That’s how you are able to convict: by the law and based on facts, not assumptions,” she said. “We have to make sure we are doing everything the right way.”
Star Palmer, a friend of Greene and local LGBT advocate, sees it differently.
“Why is it so hard to prove a hate crime is a hate crime?” she asked.