Crimes and Motives

Nicole Gelinas, City Journal, April 12, 2006

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.

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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.

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