Killings at Kansas Jewish Centers Were Hate Crimes, Right?

Yelling ‘Heil Hitler!’ after shooting three people to death on the eve of Passover would seem to say yes, but prosecutors outside Kansas City still face a tough task.

Dave Kaup/Reuters

UPDATE: Late Sunday night, authorities said they had arrested Frazier Glenn Miller, 73, of Aurora, Mo., a former Ku Klux Klan “grand dragon,” in the shootings.

Male, white, bearded, in his 70s, and not from Kansas.

That's all we know about the lone suspect in Sunday shootings outside Kansas City that left two people dead at a Jewish community center and one more at a Jewish retirement home.

At a press conference Sunday evening, Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass would not release the suspect's name but told reporters that a shotgun was used in the shootings and possibly a handgun and assault rifle. Though Douglass declined to speculate on the shooter's motive, he noted that the Overland Park Police as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who already had agents on the scene, are investigating the killings as a hate crime.

If the religious affiliation of both shooting locations weren't enough to suggest some sort of anti-Semitic motivation (on the eve of Passover, no less), there's also what the suspect yelled from the back of a police car after he was apprehended in the parking lot of a local elementary school. Douglass wouldn't confirm what, exactly, the suspect said, but a TV news crew caught the suspect yelling “Heil Hitler!” from the back of a cop car.

Kansas City has been struck with considerable violence recently. In the past month, there have been about 20 seemingly random shootings on area highways and busy roads. Yet Sunday's shootings—and the lone suspect—are more reminiscent of the fatal shootout at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2009. Not long after police identified James von Brunn as gunman who killed a security guard (dying in the process), did the 88-year-old man's history of racism and anti-Semitism come to light.

In lieu of any more concrete information about the suspect or the motive behind the shooting, the question that looms is whether this was a hate crime. And, moreover, would do we know?

A hate crime is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as “the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.” Forty-one states, including Kansas, plus D.C. have hate-crime laws, meaning that if an illegal act such as assault, vandalism, rape, or murder is determined a hate crime under that federal definition, the punishment is harsher. Under federal law, there is no maximum penalty for violent hate crimes resulting in death.

Prosecuting hate crimes, however, has historically proven to be a difficult task, as victims are often afraid of approaching police. “Because establishing motive is key aspect to proving the crime, investigations often must range far beyond the criminal act itself to locate evidence relevant to the defendant’s state of mind before and during the crime,” Benjamin Wagner, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California explains on the DoJ's website. In October 2009, the first federal hate crime statute, the Shepard Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was signed into law by President Obama. The law not only recognized for the first time violent acts against individuals because of their sexual orientation (actual or perceived) as hate crimes, but by creating a single federal hate crime statute, it saved federal investigators and prosecutors the trouble of navigating the variety of hate-crime laws in each state.

“Because a hate crime by definition involves a conclusion as to the motive of the perpetrator,” Wagner writes, “many crimes in which the perpetrator cannot be found, or his motive cannot be established based on the facts of the incident itself, are not reported.”

According to the FBI's most-recently released hate crime statistics, there were 5,790 crimes in 2012 that were motivated by bias against the victim; 48.3 percent of those crimes were motivated by racial bias, 19.6 percent by sexual orientation, and 19 percent motivated by bias against the victim's religion or perceived religion.

Like Von Brunn, the Overland Park shooting suspect was white, older, and appeared to be acting alone. But as Police Chief Douglass was careful to clarify Sunday: “Suspects are not convicted, suspects are people of interest.”