Editor’s note: This story contains offensive language.By Jonathan Romeo
Herald Staff Writer
Hate crimes are down nationwide but went up 16% in Colorado from 2017 to 2018 – and La Plata County is not immune.
Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne said there have been 13 charges filed in the past 10 years against people who are suspected of committing a crime with the motivation to discriminate against someone for their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, among other prejudice-motivated reasons.
Eight of those cases happened in La Plata County, and the other five in Archuleta County.
Champagne spoke Friday in Denver about hate crimes at an event hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.
In Colorado, a hate crime, or “bias-motivated crime,” is attached as an added charge to an original offense. In an instance like harassment, for example, if investigators decide the harassment was committed with the motive to discriminate, then prosecutors can add bias-motivated charges, which elevate penalties.
In 2018, Champagne said there were two cases tried against people accused of a hate crime, both of which happened in Archuleta County.
In one case, Pagosa Springs resident Brandon Summers was accused of verbally attacking a lesbian couple while dropping off his child at a school bus stop.
Champagne said Summers yelled at the couple, who were older students, saying “gays are sinners.” He followed the girls onto the bus and continued berating them in front of the school bus driver and a school bus full of children.
Champagne said Summers was convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor, but he could not recall Thursday afternoon his sentence for the crime.
In the other case, a Pagosa Springs woman was accused of calling someone a “fag,” Champagne said, during a fight and made disparaging comments about the person’s sexual orientation. He said the case was ultimately dismissed.
Champagne said trying a case that involves a hate crime is a difficult task for prosecutors, as it’s hard to draw the distinction between free speech and dialogue that’s intentionally said to incite harm or cast a threat against a person’s race, ethnicity, gender or other reason.
A trial was held in 2015 for Durango resident Paddy Lynch, who was accused of verbally attacking a black woman outside Durango Coffee Co.
“He called her the n-word and started yelling and screaming at her,” Champagne said. “He basically lost his mind.”
Lynch, in an interview Friday with The Durango Herald, said the woman unnecessarily became involved in an argument he was having with other people outside the coffee shop whose dogs were attacking his service dog.
The woman, Lynch said, yelled at him to have his dog on a leash. As he was walking away, Lynch said the woman called him a “stupid redneck (expletive),” which triggered him into calling her a racial slur.
“Maybe I should have called the police and accused her of a hate crime,” Lynch said. “People can hate the whites, but it’s not OK for whites to say anything derogatory to a person of color.”
The case went to trial, where jurors delivered a not guilty verdict.
“The defense’s argument in that case was it was free speech,” Champagne said. “And the jury didn’t feel there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt he was trying to put fear in her.”
Champagne said he intends to make it a priority to get both law enforcement and the public educated about hate crimes.
He said he plans to institute training for law enforcement, so when a crime happens, officers and investigators can have feelers out to determine if the crime was committed because of underlying hate or discrimination toward a group.
“Sometimes, they (officers) need to dig a little bit deeper, when it’s maybe not right on the surface, that hatred was an underlying factor in some of these behaviors,” Champagne said.
Jeremy Shaver, a senior associate regional director with the Anti-Defamation League, said the most frequent hate crimes are directed toward someone’s race or ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
But it really depends on a particular community and what tensions may exist between different groups when generalizing what hate crimes are most prevalent.
Enforcement, Shaver said, is essential.
“One thing that makes hate crimes unique is that they are message crimes: Someone is trying to communicate a broader message to the victim, the victim’s community and the community at-large, that you don’t belong here ... or we don’t like your kind,” he said. “So it’s important to have strong enforcement to also send a message that this behavior is not tolerated and that we will protect the members of our community.”
Shaver said it is also important to encourage potential victims of hate crimes to report them.
“They should not suffer in silence, and know that in many cases, law enforcement is committed to doing what it can to hold someone accountable for their actions,” he said.
Not everyone believes that hate crimes have a place in the judicial process.
There’s a school of thought that hate crimes selectively criminalize some bias-motivated speech, while permitting others. And, critics say prosecuting hate speech can conflict with the idea of free thought.
“To criminalize hatred and bias is to move from an act-centered theory of criminal punishment to a character-centered theory, and so, to move from a liberal theory of legislation to a perfectionist theory,” Heidi Hurd, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, wrote in her article, “Why Liberals Should Hate ‘Hate Crime Legislation.’”
And, other critics say hate crime legislation exacerbates conflicts between groups.
“By redefining crime as a facet of intergroup conflict, hate-crime laws encourage citizens to think of themselves as members of identity groups and encourage identity groups to think of themselves as victimized and besieged, thereby hardening each group’s sense of resentment,” James Jacobs and Kimberly Potter wrote in their book, “Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics.” “That in turn contributes to the balkanization of American society, not its unification.”
Champagne said that although there were only 13 cases in 10 years, hate crimes likely happen more often than they are reported in Southwest Colorado.
“Sometimes, people think it doesn’t happen around here, but it happens everywhere,” he said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. The more we take it head-on, the more of an impact we have ending it.”