Spa shootings could be first test of Georgia hate crimes law

Published: Mar. 20, 2021 at 12:27 PM EDT
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ATLANTA (AP) - The murder case against a white man accused of shooting and killing six women of Asian descent and two other people at Atlanta-area massage businesses could become the first big test for Georgia’s new hate crimes law.

The 21-year-old suspect told police that the attacks Tuesday weren’t racially motivated and claimed to have a sex addiction.

Because most of the victims were women of Asian descent, there’s skepticism of that explanation, and some people are clamoring for hate crime charges.

Some lawmakers and legal experts say using the law is important for the victims and the community and to show how to prove violence motivated by bias.

Another possibility is federal hate crime charges.

However, federal investigators have so far not found evidence that clears the high bar for such charges, two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.

Although investigators have not ruled out ultimately filing hate crime charges, they face legal constraints in doing so. Federal statutes require prosecutors to prove that the victims were targeted because of specific factors, like race, gender identity, religion, national origin or sexual orientation, or the suspect infringed on a federally or constitutionally protected activity.

To successfully prosecute a hate crimes case, prosecutors typically seek tangible evidence, such as the suspect expressing racism in text messages, in internet posts or to witnesses.

No such evidence has yet surfaced in the Georgia probe, according to the officials, who have direct knowledge of the investigation into the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long.

The deadly rampage has prompted Asian American women to openly share stories of being sexually harassed or demeaned based on their race.

They say dealing with men who cling to a perpetual narrative that Asian women are exotic and submissive is a frequent occurrence they’re forced to tolerate.

While the suspect hasn’t been charged with hate crimes, advocates and scholars say race is an inherent component in Tuesday’s killings that points to a larger discussion on the deep history of fetishizing Asian women.

Police records show officers were sent on prostitution calls at least 21 times in the past 10 years to the two Atlanta-area massage businesses where the gunman killed four of the victims.

The records appeared to contradict comments from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who said officers in her city had not been to the businesses beyond a minor potential theft and they were not “on the radar” of police.

Bottoms added that she did not want to blame the victims.

The slayings prompted President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to offer solace to Asian Americans during a visit to Atlanta on Friday.

Biden and Harris addressed the nation after a roughly 80-minute meeting with Asian American state legislators and other leaders.

The president says it was “heart-wrenching” to listen to their stories of the fear among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders amid what he called a “skyrocketing spike” of harassment and violence against them. The visit had added resonance with the presence of Harris, the first person of South Asian descent to hold national office.

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