Hate crime bill dies in committee

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    By Sara Israelsen

    SALT LAKE CITY — Sonia James moved to Utah 11 years ago to raise her children in what she considered a safe state. But she had only been in Taylorsville for 30 days when someone smashed her car windshield and painted derogatory graffiti on her house.

    “Sometimes I get hated because I”m African American, and I”m LDS,” she said. ?Sometimes people don”t know who I am as a person, they don”t choose to know.”

    So James moved to Sandy, where she has enjoyed raising her three children. However, recent negative events have caused her to again reevaluate the state she formerly found so inviting.

    “Even in Utah racism can raise its ugly head,” she said. “It”s wrong.

    Persecution is wrong no matter how you look at it.”

    And while most would agree persecution is wrong, four members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee argued unequal prosecution is worse, killing a bill Tuesday morning that would have enhanced punishments for hate crimes.

    SB 181, Criminal Code Amendments, failed 4-3 in an outcome sponsor Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake, said was disappointing, but not surprising.

    Currently there are no extra punishments in Utah for hate crimes, which are defined as actions inflicted upon another person with the intent to terrorize or make the victim fear for his or her safety or the security of personal property.

    Hale”s bill would have defined the terms “bias” or “prejudice,” as intentionally selecting a victim because of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, ancestry or gender, among other things. The bill would also stiffen penalties for hate crimes, increasing a class B misdemeanor to a class A, a class A misdemeanor to a third degree felony and so forth.

    A similar hate crime bill was sponsored by former Sen. Pete Suazo, (D), in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 General Legislative Sessions but was defeated each time.

    Utah Attorney General and chairman of the Utah Prosecution Council Mark Shurtleff came to speak in favor of the legislation.

    “I believe we need this tool to adequately defend and protect everybody in this state,” he said. “We would ask that politics be put aside and this bill be viewed strictly as criminal law to protect the citizens of the state of Utah.”

    Shurtleff supported his comments by citing the 1993 Supreme Court Case decision in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, when in 1989, after watching a scene from the movie “Mississippi Burning,” an angry group of young black men attacked a white man, leaving him unconscious.

    The main defendant, Todd Mitchell, was sentenced for aggravated battery, usually a sentence of two years in jail. However, the United States Supreme Court unanimously allowed the punishment enhancement of two years, a total of four years in jail, after the Wisconsin Circuit Court ruled Mitchell had attacked the victim because of his race.

    In the legal process, the burden rests on the prosecutor who must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when the hate crime was committed, the person had an actual bias or prejudice that influenced his or her actions. Even membership in an organized supremacy group isn”t enough to convict someone.

    Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, opposed the bill and asked who the legislation would fully protect. Crimes committed against people because of certain reasons, such as religion or race, are punished.

    But Madsen said he was concerned about crimes against people because of their high or low social status, financial status or political beliefs ? categories not specifically protected under SB 181. In a mock situation, Madsen asked about the penalties for a man who confesses hatred for a neighbor as the catalyst for an attack.

    “If that person doesn”t fit into one of these categories, even if they say ”I hate him,” there”s no additional prosecution,” Madsen said.

    After committee discussion, the public began commenting, in what became an hour-long debate, between opponent and proponent.

    Gayle Ruzika, president of the Eagle Forum in Utah, asked why there should be an enhanced penalty based on the victim of the crime. She asked why a rape against a woman would be any less detrimental than the same crime against a man who had made an individual choice of sexual orientation.

    “The crime would be just as bad, no matter who it is done against,” she said. “If we need to enhance the penalties, let”s do it equally across the board.”

    However, what it ultimately boiled down to in the comments from the opposition was the perceived increase of freedom for the homosexual lifestyle.

    Opponents said they worried that if punishments for crimes against sexual orientation were punished as strictly as were crimes because of race, age, gender or religion, the status of homosexuality would earn new clout as an acceptable lifestyle and appropriate curriculum in schools.

    This point was hammered home by opponents who spoke of and showed the book “Heather Has Two Mommies,” a book explaining a homosexual relationship. They feared it could become future school reading if the bill were to pass.

    However, Paul Boyden, executive director of Utah”s Statewide Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, clarified that the bill would not grant any special civil status to homosexuals, because any potential problem had already been solved by the passage of Amendment Three, which prohibits gay marriage in Utah. Boyden said he was also unaware of how SB 181”s passage would impact school curriculums.

    In an emotional closing, Hale responded to accusations from opponents who said the bill sponsors were becoming activists.

    “If I”m accused of being an activist, let me be an activist for strengthening our communities and state,” she said. “I believe we should all be activists for protecting the basic human rights of people within our state.”

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