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Federal Authorities Investigate Charleston, S.C., Attack As A Hate Crime


Wednesday's attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., is being investigated by federal authorities as a hate crime. The nine victims were all black. According to a survivor's account, the white shooter told the churchgoers, you rape our women, and you're taking over our country, and you have to go. Friends of the suspect, Dylann Roof, say he has advocated racial segregation and that he wanted to start a race war. Joining us to explore what's involved in carrying out a hate investigation is former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. He led the 2001 and 2002 prosecutions of two former Klansman for the fatal bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Four young African-American girls died in that 1963 bombing. Mr. Jones, welcome to the program.

DOUG JONES: Thank you, Melissa, pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: And what does a hate crime's investigation entail?

JONES: Well, when it comes down to it, the hate crimes investigation is, really, almost parallel and identical to any other criminal investigation. You're going to be gathering a lot of evidence, both forensically as well as witness statements. I think the thing in a hate crime investigation that you are focusing on will be those tendencies for racial hatred. What was posted on Facebook? What was said and done? But at the end of the day, you're getting in somebody's head. That's often a little bit difficult to do.

BLOCK: And, legally, why would that motivation matter? Isn't a murder a murder?

JONES: Well, in this case, you're absolutely correct. A murder is a murder. And I think that there are reasons to investigate this as a hate crime that go beyond the courtroom. A hate crime, in most instances, is going to involve a lesser-type crime, but which, because it is a hate crime, there will be greater penalties. A basic assault that's on the books, if motivated by hate, can involve increased penalties. In this particular case, though, I think the broader issue for a hate crime investigation involves the public dialogue about race in America. As a practical matter, it will probably not be a difference in the courtroom because the punishment will be, if it's prosecuted in the state courts, potentially, a death penalty or life without parole. You can't get any more enhanced than those two particular penalties.

BLOCK: Sure. Is there any advantage for a prosecutor to add on hate crime charges?

JONES: Only when it comes to sentencing. If you're looking for some type of enhanced sentencing, those are usually what a hate crime is there for. When it comes to trying the case, it actually makes it a little bit more difficult. Remember that in so many criminal cases, motive is always something that's relevant to the crime, whether it's theft, whether it's assault, whether it's murder. Motive is relevant to the case, but it's not an element of the case, and there's a big difference. When it's an element of the crime, you have to prove that particular element beyond a reasonable doubt. And it's a little bit more difficult when you're proving an element that is solely within someone's head.

BLOCK: Mr. Jones, I imagine that, with this week's horrific assault at the house of worship in South Carolina, that you must be thinking all the time about the cases you handled with the Birmingham church bombing of 1963.

JONES: Well, I have been, but I think, more importantly and significantly, I have been thinking about the victims and the greater community because, ultimately, you know, justice, I think, is going to prevail. It took us a long time here in Birmingham. I think justice is, obviously, going to come swifter in Charleston, S.C. But a crime like this really rips the heart out of a community. And, Melissa, one of the things that has really struck me as I've had all the flashbacks dealing with these cases - in 1963, following the deaths, there was outrage from all sectors of the Birmingham community. But at the end of the day, when it came time for the funeral and it came time for the candlelight vigils and those kind of things, what you saw was primarily the black community, with a few scattered white clergy. You don't see that in South Carolina. You see, today, white and black holding hands, singing, you know, making sure that people of this country know that Charleston is one community, regardless of this crime. And it's just like Dr. King said, I think, in the eulogy for the four girls in Birmingham. Out of every tragedy, there also comes hope. And I think that's what we're going to see. I think we're going to, hopefully, see a greater dialogue about race in this country, a dialogue that's very difficult, but still very necessary.

BLOCK: Doug Jones is a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. He led the prosecution of two former Klansman in the 1963 fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Mr. Jones, thanks so much for talking with us.

JONES: It's been my pleasure, Melissa. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.