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Seeking Hate Crime Charges Can Be Harder With Asian Victims

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Prosecutors in Georgia announced this week that they are seeking the death penalty and hate crime charges for the suspect in the Atlanta-area shootings in March. Six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent, but proving that these killings constitute a hate crime could be difficult. Thien Ho has seen that challenge firsthand. He's the assistant chief deputy district attorney at the Sacramento County DA's office in California. Welcome.

THIEN HO: Thank you so much for having me on your show.

CHANG: Thank you for being here. I'd like to first talk about what happens at the beginning, when someone reports an instance of hate. Can you just explain what warrants a report of a hate crime versus, say, an incident where maybe someone's just exercising their First Amendment right to utter a racial slur?

HO: Well, first of all, I think it's extremely important that everybody, whether it's a hate crime or a hate incident, report it to the police. But let me give you an example of what a hate incident is. A couple of weeks ago, my 16-year-old niece was walking down the street with her friend when a pickup truck pulled up next to her. The adult male inside said, what ethnicity are you? My niece looked at him and said, I'm Vietnamese, to which he responded, because of you and the virus, it has ruined my children's lives.

CHANG: Wow.

HO: And so that is a hate incident because he never threatened her. He never used any physical force. He never blocked her movement. But it was spiteful. It was hateful, and it was jarring for a 16-year-old girl to have experienced that.

CHANG: Sure. But it's not something that would be prosecuted.

HO: That in itself is not prosecutable. But let's say that particular individual two weeks later commits a hate crime where he goes up any punches somebody and yells racial slurs. Well, what we can do is use this prior incident with my niece to go ahead and prove his intent on the subsequent case.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about proving out bias when there is, as you say, violence or vandalism or a direct threat because the white man accused of these Atlanta shootings denied explicitly having a racial bias. How do you think prosecutors will try to prove that he did have one, even if he may not have realized he had one at the time or he wouldn't admit to it?

HO: Well, first of all, as a prosecutor, I can't comment on any pending case. But this is what I would do in terms of investigating and charging a case. I would look at the person's social media history. I would examine forensically their computer. I would look to see if they were blogging or commenting on white supremacist websites. I would do a forensic download of their phones because oftentimes circumstantial evidence of their mental state and their bias is going to be reflected on their computers, on their social media platforms and in their conversations with family members and friends.

CHANG: And when a crime involves Asian victims in particular, are there any unique challenges to seeking hate crime penalties?

HO: Most definitely. There are cultural challenges. There's a language barrier. There's also fear of immigration consequences. And there's the general reluctance of Asian Americans to report crime from a cultural perspective because we just put our heads down and keep going on with our lives instead of reporting, instead of speaking out. And it's a cultural aspect. And so those are the challenges because we know that hate crimes and hate incidents are grossly underreported in the Asian community.

CHANG: Finally, I mean, before I let you go, we've obviously seen a rise in anti-Asian violence in this country over the past year. And I'm wondering, practically speaking, what do you think people can do to combat this, anything?

HO: So first and foremost, it's about education. But secondly, there are a lot of community-based organizations and nonprofits out there that are doing good work. So, for example, I spent a weekend down in our local Asian area wearing a vest and escorting Asians, elders out to their vehicle and watching them as they were doing so to make sure that they were safe. We hand out whistles so that they can use those safety whistles. So there's a lot that you can do. Everybody should connect with a community-based organization, especially to assist AAPI members.

CHANG: Thien Ho is the assistant chief deputy district attorney for Sacramento County. Thank you very much for being with us today.

HO: Thank you so much. I'm honored to be on the program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.