Gay-bashing in Savannah. Jews attacked on their way to synagogue in north Fulton. Latinos murdered in South Georgia. A lesbian nightclub bombed by a radical right-winger.
Speaking symbolically on the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Otherside Lounge – the gay/lesbian bar where Eric Robert Rudolph admitted setting off a pipe bomb – Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, introduced a bill Wednesday afternoon to combat hate crimes.
The bill would increase penalties for a person found guilty of any crime targeting a victim because of that victim's race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. A misdemeanor penalty could be increased by 50 percent. A felony conviction could carry an additional five years of jail time.
Fort has the co-sponsorship of fellow Atlanta Sens. Kasim Reed and Nan Orrock, who says she still lives with the memory of the KKK burning a cross on her front lawn.
"State after state has been putting hate-crimes legislation on the books," Orrock told reporters in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building. "This bill says hate crimes will not be tolerated in our state. This bill is constitutional and it would be enforceable."
Drumming up support from the majority party might be harder.
The fact that the bill contains a penalty enhancement for thugs who victimize someone based on national origin could capture the imagination of Republicans looking to beef up penalties for terrorists. "We know any progress will have to be made with bipartisan support," Fort said. "Protecting people isn't a Democratic or Republican issue. It's a Georgia issue."
The logic is that an anti-American terrorist who victimizes Georgians would be fair game to receive harsher punishment under the bill's provisions. Whether hardcore conservatives want to throw the book at a gay-basher is another matter. "We're going to take it step by step," Fort said.
Reed stressed that anyone can be convicted of a hate crime. If a black person violently attacks a white one and a prosecutor can show that part of the defendant's motivation was the victim's race, the bill would give that prosecutor leverage.
"If witnesses say, for example, that they heard the defendant making anti-Semitic comments, that information is what the prosecutor would need in order to seek an enhanced penalty," Reed said.
Rudolph pleaded guilty in federal courts to the Otherside Lounge bombing, in addition to bombs he set off in Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games, and at abortion clinics in Sandy Springs and Birmingham. The Birmingham blast killed a security guard. Rudolph is serving a life sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colo., known as "Supermax."
Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, says he does not plan to bury Fort's legislation.
"I spoke to Sen. Fort about it today and I'm going to try to work it so we'll have a hearing on his bill, but it's hard for me to predict whether we'll have a vote or not because there may be questions or concerns about the bill," he says.
As chairman, Smith does not hold a committee vote and was reluctant to guess how fellow Republican members would vote on the hate-crimes legislation, but he seemed to anticipate that they would get the chance.
"My expectation is that we'll have a hearing and probably a vote," he says.
Fort was successful in passing an earlier version of a hate-crimes bill that became law in 2000 and was used to prosecute two white street kids who attacked two black brothers while screaming racial epithets. The law was thrown out in 2004 by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled it "unconstitutionally vague" because it did not specify what forms of prejudice were to be used in defining a hate crime.
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