As a result, a 17-year-old Shiloh High School student is likely to become the first person prosecuted under Georgia's year-old, so-called "hate crime law."
Michael Keith Bargeron, a white senior who is accused of intentionally hitting Keishuna Young, 15, with his car on Jan. 16, stands to earn an extra five years in prison and additional fines if a jury is convinced he attacked the girl out of racial hatred because she is black.
According to police, Bargeron yelled racial slurs at Keishuna and a friend as he drove by with a carload of friends, then returned a few minutes later and tried to ram her with his car. Keishuna, who has said she jumped onto the car hood, received bloody scrapes on her hip, wrist and elbow when she rolled off the car onto the pavement.
Although Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter hasn't committed to invoking the hate-crime law, he hints strongly that he will. "It is certainly a possibility. The act was clearly racially motivated," he says. Bargeron remains in jail on aggravated assault charges. In denying bond, Gwinnett Chief Magistrate Warren Davis lectured the teen on his "disgusting behavior" in the incident and a lack of remorse afterward.
Both Porter and the law's author, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, say this is just the type of case the law was designed to address.
"This is a classic incident and it would be the first time this law is applied," says Fort, who is watching the Snellville case carefully.
Formally named the "Anti-domestic Terrorism Act," the law provides for enhanced penalties in cases where a jury determines that the defendant intentionally selected a victim or object because of specific bias or prejudice. Regardless of whether an act is committed by an organized hate group or an individual acting alone, the law targets anyone whose motive is hate-based.
There is a Federal Hate Crime Prevention Act in place, but it is limited in its reach, stipulating in part that the victim must be engaged in a federally protected act, such as being in school or voting. Consequently, most states have seen it necessary to add additional laws. Georgia is the 46th state to adopt such a measure.
Fort believes the law will serve as a deterrent to what he sees as a rise in hate crime incidents in Georgia, but whether the law will work as intended could be difficult to document.
"Deterrents are almost always impossible to measure," Porter concedes. "But the law will certainly send a message about our level of tolerance -- that if hate crimes happen, citizens will know that the government will support them."
Setting a standard for what society will tolerate may be the most important aspect of the law, says Erik Friedly, spokesperson for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's office, which has its own hate crimes task force. "We certainly hope it will make people think twice before taking those kinds of actions," Friedly says. Vernon Keenan, associate director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation agrees, "I think the law brings into focus the seriousness of such crimes. We know that these incidents escalate if they go unaddressed."
While most sources agree that Georgia is not among the worst states in terms of hate crimes, there seems to be disagreement between Fort, watchdog groups, other legislators and local law enforcement agencies on whether such incidents are actually increasing. Unfortunately, incomplete reporting practices make statistics difficult to track. Last year, 36 hate crime incidents were reported in Georgia by the mere nine law-enforcement agencies that keep such records. By contrast, 353 agencies report hate crime incidents in Tennessee and 209 in Missouri.
According to Fulton County Police Chief Coleman, "The importance of the legislation is that statistically we can start keeping track. It is a good tool for law enforcement; it helps us work with and identify hate crimes."
On a national level, the FBI reported a total of 7,876 hate crime incidents in the U.S., ranging from harassment to property damage, vandalism and murder. At present, Gwinnett police do not keep track of hate crimes and have not dedicated an investigator to handle such cases.
However, the Bargeron case is certainly not metro Atlanta's first exposure to hate-based crimes. Pastor Eugene Shin of the Siloam Korean Church of Atlanta in Norcross says they have had several incidents of vandalism, such as broken windows and painted swastikas on parking signs outside. "These types of things happen, and they are both frightening and sad," he says.
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