Back on Feb. 26, in the basement of Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, I moderated a panel on hate crimes legislation – or, rather, the lack of it — in Georgia.
I began with the words of Vernon Keenan, then director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, at an Anti-Defamation League event in 2017. “I am tired of apologizing for the state of Georgia not having a hate crimes law,” Keenan said, in his archetypal Southern law enforcement voice.
Three years later, Georgia remains one of four states – along with South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas – without a statute.
The panelists were two members of the state Senate, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, and a Democrat from the state House. In attendance were activists from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, African American and LGBTQ communities.
After the breakfast session, many of those in attendance walked over to the Capitol to lobby in support of a law allowing for enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by bias. The ADL, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, and Tzedek Georgia have been among organizations at the forefront of this effort.
It is possible that no one present knew that three days earlier, in an unincorporated area near the coastal city of Brunswick, Ga., a 25-year-old African American man, who was known to jog in the area, was killed by shotgun blasts during an alleged confrontation with two armed white men, a father and son, who had pursued him in a pickup truck. An autopsy determined that Ahmaud Arbery died from two gunshot blasts to the chest “during a struggle for the shotgun.” Investigations continue into the circumstances of the incident, and three men have since been charged with the murder.
Cellphone video of the incident, recorded from a vehicle traveling behind the truck, surfaced the first week of May, after local authorities had declined to prosecute. The GBI was brought in, and within 48 hours, the father and son were charged with murder and aggravated assault, jailed and denied bond. The man who shot the video subsequently was arrested by the GBI charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Based on lessons I learned early in my career as a newspaper’s police beat reporter, I caution those who think this a slam-dunk case: Never bet on what a jury will do.
Nonetheless, the death of Arbery may — may, because, well, this is Georgia — achieve what all the polite lobbying has not, namely move the Senate to pass and send to Gov. Brian Kemp a hate crimes bill already approved by the House.
The General Assembly passed a hate crimes bill in 2000 but the measure was tossed by the state Supreme Court in 2004 as being “unconstitutionally vague.”
In March 2019, the House voted 96 to 64 in favor of HB 426, sponsored by Republican Rep. Chuck Efstration from Dacula, “to revise the criteria for imposition of punishment for crimes involving bias or prejudice.”
The measure would “provide for sentencing of defendants who commit certain crimes which target a victim because of the victim’s race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.” A finding of bias could add to a sentence of three months to a year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor or at least two years in prison for a felony.
The bill sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve the measure – and its chairman makes no promises – before a Senate floor vote. Senate approval of the bill as written would send it to the governor. Amendments would require a con-ference committee to work out differences and return the bill to the House and Senate for floor votes.
And the clock is ticking, sort of.
Ordinarily, the General Assembly would have adjourned several weeks ago, but COVID-19 forced suspension of the session on March 13. Lawmakers will return in mid-June to finish their 2020 business, most notably approval of a 2021 state budget in a time of economic stress.
Because the legislature works on a two-year cycle, failure to pass a hate crimes bill this year means that the whole process would have to start anew next year.
Advocates are, to use a cliche, cautiously optimistic; though, after all their efforts, perhaps more cautious than optimistic.
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution carefully noted that while Kemp said “conversations about legislation are already underway, and we will work through the process when the General Assembly reconvenes,” he did not endorse its passage.
In the grand scope of things, putting a hate crimes law on the books in Georgia should be important on a level with, say, reopening massage and tattoo parlors, nail salons and bowling alleys.