Two recent crimes—one in Harlem and the other in Howard Beach, Queens—show why New York should repeal its six-year old law against “hate crimes,” which increases penalties for criminals who target their victims based on race, religion, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Police and prosecutors should be targeting violent criminals for what they do, not for what they think.
Consider first the case of Broderick Hehman, a 20-year-old “metropolitan studies” major at NYU, allegedly murdered by five young teenagers. Hehman, a New York native, lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but he was on his way to a friend’s house 50 blocks north in Harlem on April 1 when the teens accosted him, forcing him into 125th Street, where a car slammed into him. He died three days later.
Hehman was white. Police have arrested four black kids (aged 13 to 15) and charged them with murder, and they are searching for a fifth. Several eyewitnesses told police that at least one of the suspects yelled “Get whitey” or “Get the white boy” before attacking Hehman.
Police investigated Hehman’s killing as a hate crime—and the murder certainly seemed to fit the criteria. But then they decided that Hehman wasn’t the victim of racial bias after all. “The substantial reason” for the events that led to his murder “was economic, not the victim’s identity,” determined NYPD investigator Michael Osgood. The racial slur? Merely a gratuitous remark.
Police have determined that the teens allegedly went after Hehman in the course of committing a crime—robbery—because his slight build made him look like an “easy mark,” not because they were out to get a white person. It’s a tricky distinction, impossible to prove either way. It’s a distinction, moreover, that officials don’t apply in a second case, that of Nicholas Minucci.
Minucci, unable to post $500,000 bail, has sat in jail for nearly a year, charged with assault as a hate crime. The facts of Minucci’s case aren’t in much doubt. The physically imposing 19-year-old Italian-American, accompanied by two friends, allegedly attacked three black men with a baseball bat last June, sending one to the hospital with a fractured skull. Minucci allegedly carried out the attack, and a robbery of the men, in Howard Beach, famous for a brutal assault that ended in the death of a young black man at the hands of white assailants nearly two decades ago. Prosecutors charged Minucci with a hate crime because he allegedly said “What’s up, nigger?” while preparing to slug one of the victims.
This case seems another obvious example of racial bias — and the community activists who’ve made a career of exploiting racial politics in New York, Reverend Al Sharpton leading the way, immediately seized upon the case last summer.
But outrage obscured some inconvenient details. Minucci claims that he did not target the three victims because they were black; rather, he claims, he assaulted them because he believed, based on their appearance, that they were the same three people who tried to rob him earlier that night.
As for the n-word: Minucci has told the Daily News’s Denis Hamill in a jailhouse interview: “I didn’t say ‘n---er’ with an ‘er.’ But ‘n---a’ with an ‘a’ at the end. There’s a very big difference in the hip-hop world that I come from . . . ‘What up, n---a’ is like saying, ‘What’s up, pal?’” To bolster his argument, Minucci notes that he grew up in mostly black East New York: “I went to Junior High School 226, where I was the only Italian in a school of 2,000 mostly African-American kids. All of my friends . . . were black. All of them. . . . And we always called each other ‘n---a’ all the time.”
No one but Minucci knows whether he used “nigga” or “nigger” as a racial slur or as a common hip-hop greeting (although the fact that he was once charged with going after Sikhs with a paintball gun on 9/11 casts doubt on his claim of racial enlightenment). No one but the five alleged perpetrators in Harlem knows whether they purportedly used “whitey” as a racial slur or a piece of descriptive information identifying an “easy” victim in the neighborhood.
Hehman’s attackers get the benefit of the near impossibility of proving what someone is thinking, while Minucci does not. But don’t blame the police: the murky facts of each case show that the hate-crimes law is impossible to apply in the first place.
Officials shouldn’t have to expend resources on such a law. They should concentrate on charging and aggressively prosecuting violent suspects, including Minucci and those who killed Hehman, based on acts, not thoughts.