It has been nearly two months since a 30-year-old black poultry plant worker was shot by a white co-worker, his corpse strung to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for 11 miles like so much detritus in a small central-South Carolina town.
While the killing of Anthony Hill evoked strong memories of the stunning lynching-by-dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998 by three white supremacists, no hate crime charges have been filed to date in the South Carolina case.
The incident has sparked a smoldering debate among civil rights activists, community leaders and hate-group monitors about hate crime laws, in part because South Carolina is one of five states that do not have a hate crimes statute. (The others are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Wyoming.)
Hate crime statutes send a strong message to individuals that federal and local governments will not tolerate crimes based on xenophobia, which includes attacks on race, ethnicity and sexual preference. However, it's important to note that they are not freestanding statutes. They lengthen sentences and increase fines, but do not include major punishments such as the death penalty.
Last October, Congress passed a measure known as the James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act, which strengthened the federal government's ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, and extended coverage to violence and attempted violence directed at people based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
The law was named to recognize two heinous crimes that garnered worldwide attention. Byrd was hooked to a pickup truck with a heavy logging chain wrapped around his ankles and dragged about three miles before three men left the torso on display in front of the city's black cemetery. Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was homosexual.
"The federal hate crimes law is an enhancement that overlays criminal statutes and applies to the sentencing of a case,'' said Bill Nigut, southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Atlanta. The ADL, which fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry across the globe and monitors hate crimes, has been involved in the Newberry, S.C., investigation. (The Root also reached out to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the NAACP for comment, but neither group was available for comment by press time.)
"[The law] increases penalties and sentencing, and each measure varies from state to state,'' Nigut continued. "In a state like South Carolina, federal law would allow the Department of Justice to prosecute it as a hate crime. But hypothetically, if the death penalty were involved in a case like this, you might be reluctant to apply hate crime law because it is not included in the sentencing.''
Besides that, the killing may have been a matter of an affair of the heart: an old-fashioned dispute over a woman, according to some news reports. Collins was charged with murder in Hill's death in the incident that occurred in early June.
Nigut questioned the involvement of the New Black Panther Party, which his organization considers to be a hate group itself, and he debated the validity of hate crime charges being pushed by the leader Malik Zulu Shabazz.
"At this point, there has been no definitive evidence that this was a crime motivated by hate,'' he said. "There were circumstances that there may have been a personal motive. They palled around together and they knew each other. But the door has not been closed on the possibility that it was a hate crime.''
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project in southeast Alabama, which monitors hate groups, agrees with Nigut.
"The viciousness of a crime is not what makes it a hate crime,'' Potok said. "It is the motivation for the attack that matters. If the attack were based on race, such as 'I'm going to go out kill a black person because I hate black people,' then that would make it a hate crime. The Newberry case is reminiscent of the Byrd case, but all the complaining in the world will not change this into a hate crime.''
Potok said the New Black Panther Party, which his group also classifies as a hate group, played a role in pushing hate crime charges in a West Virginia case in 2007. Ultimately, prosecutors decided against filing charges against six white suspects in the torture case of a black woman, Megan Williams, who was held captive and tortured for at least a week.
Williams, of Charleston, reportedly was held in a home in an isolated area and called a racial slur while her captors sexually abused, beat and stabbed her. Hate crime charges, which carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison in West Virginia, were considered. Prosecutors instead pursued sexual assault charges, which carry up to 35 years in prison.
"Williams was the former girlfriend of the son of the family,'' Potok said. "All of the defendants pled guilty in the end. But the New Black Panther Party came in and made claims about hate crimes. They riled up the community and drew attention to themselves. They snookered the victim, and the prosecutors responded.''
"There may be a social reason to charge someone with a hate crime,'' Potok said. "Law enforcement is saying, 'We recognize this crime to be motivated by the victim's ethnicity, religion or race,' making people in the community understand such crimes won't be tolerated. They fracture communities along pre-existing fault lines. It's not merely a white guy beating up a black guy with a baseball bat while hurling racial slurs; it has a chilling effect on the whole community, which results in people living in fear. We're trying to combat that.''
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.