Friday, June 09, 2006


What is a "hate crime"?

The latest trial pointing out the racial tensions that ebb and flow in New York City has now gone to the jury. For those of you who don't live around here and might not have heard about it, it's the trial of a young Italian-American man, Nicholas Minucci, who beat a young African-American man, Glenn Moore, with a baseball bat last summer. The prosecution says that Mr Minucci angrily insulted Mr Moore's race while he hit him over the head with the bat. The defense says that Mr Minucci only hit Mr Moore in his side and legs, and only to stop Mr Moore and his friends from stealing cars in the neighbourhood. And, says the defense, the racial slur that Mr Minucci used was just a casual term, a manner of address, and does not reflect racial hatred.

That last point is particularly significant, since Mr Minucci is charged not only with beating Mr Moore, but of a "hate crime", which carries much stiffer penalties. Expert witnesses were called to testify to the meaning of the particular racial slur — including Professor Randall Kennedy, a black professor from Harvard Law School, who has written a book about the word. I'd like to look at the hate crime issue from a couple of angles.

First, what does a "hate crime" mean in this case? It seems very clear that Mr Minucci had a great deal of hate for Mr Moore and his friends that night. One doesn't beat someone senseless with a bat otherwise, and I, at least, do not consider bashing someone's head with a bat to be "reasonable force" to stop a theft (Mr Moore admitted that they were looking to steal a car). The men were already running away; there was no need to beat them at that point. What Mr Minucci did was horrible; does it need any "extra" labels?

Second, to the meaning and usage of the racial slur: I respect Professor Kennedy's research and opinion, and I understand what he means when he says that the word has, in some contexts, become casual. The key here is the context:

Professor Kennedy said the meaning of the epithet depended on the context in which it was used. Ms. Herring asked him to assume that the context was a white man wielding a baseball bat, about to attack a black man. Justice Richard L. Buchter disallowed the question, saying Professor Kennedy could not conjecture as to what the attacker would be thinking.
Perhaps he can't, but he can certainly conjecture what Mr Moore was thinking as the bat swung at him, and I can't imagine that anyone could accept that a white man swinging a baseball bat at a black man would be using that word "casually".

Third, does the word really matter here? Are we saying that if a white man chases a black man from his street with a baseball bat, it's a "hate crime" if he calls him a bad name, but not if he doesn't? It seems to me that the word, offensive as it be, isn't really the point. We're trying to get into Mr Minucci's mind and judge whether he did this out of broader "hate" — not just hate for a man who wanted to steal a car, but hate for him as a member of a class of people. Is it possible for us to do that in court, with evidence and testimony and 27 8-by-10 colour glossy photos?

Finally, and circling back to the first point, is this what the "hate crime" law was put there for? As I opined above, this is a terrible thing in itself; there's no need to intensify it by trying it as a hate crime, and I hope that Mr Minucci gets a sentence appropriate to the assault. We put the hate crime law in place to make a bigger issue of a smaller thing, to turn a misdemeanor or prank into something more when something more was intended. We'd not like to throw the book at a young man who spray-paints "Go Mets!" on the side of a bus in Queens; we would like to consider it with much more gravity when he spray-paints "Go Hitler!" on a Jewish synagogue.

This is an interesting case, with a lot to consider. And I want to see how the jury decides.

Update: After deliberating for 8 hours...
        Queens Jury Returns Guilty Verdict in Hate Crime Case

Update, 17 July: Today Mr Minucci was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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