Representatives of several black churches appealed to prosecutors Thursday to pursue hate-crime or civil-rights charges against six white people accused of torturing a black woman over several days.
Logan County prosecutors say they have not ruled out hate-crime charges but are focusing on the counts already filed, including kidnapping and sexual assault, which have tougher maximum sentences. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have not sought civil-rights charges.
“The family is aghast and totally devastated by the findings of the Logan prosecutor that this barbaric, heinous, despicable [crime] is not one of racial hatred,” said the Rev. Emanuel Heyliger of the Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Dunbar.
Logan County Prosecutor Brian Abraham urged patience.
“We’re still working the case, even today,” he said. “I’ll make that determination when the investigation is concluded, but I want to focus on the most serious crimes that carry the stiffest penalties.”
Authorities also said the fact that Megan Williams knew one of her alleged attackers played a role in their decision not to pursue hate-crime or civil-rights charges at this time. Heyliger, speaking outside the Charleston hospital where Williams is being treated, rejected that explanation.
Williams, 20, of Charleston, was held captive for more than a week at a ramshackle trailer in Logan County, where she was tortured, sexually assaulted and forced to eat animal droppings, according to criminal complaints.
Her captors choked her with a cable cord, stabbed her in the leg while calling her a racial epithet, poured hot water over her, made her drink from a toilet and beat her, according to the complaints.
Three of the six suspects have been charged with kidnapping, which carries a maximum life sentence, sexual assault, with a 35-year maximum, or both. The most serious crime the other three suspects are charged with, assault during the commission of a felony, carries the same 10-year maximum as a hate crime, but prosecutors say the charges will probably change.
“How can you not charge them with a hate crime and pursue it when it appears to be racially motivated?” asked Bishop Richard Cox, a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Every black preacher in that city and every concerned, fair-minded white person in that city ought to get together,” Cox said in telephone interview from Ohio, where he is based. “We need to march and protest.”
U.S. Attorney Charles T. Miller said by telephone he was not surprised by the criticism.
“Most people, when they see the allegations in this particular case, think, ‘Well that’s obviously a hate crime. Where are the feds?’ “ Miller said. “It’s very difficult to explain to the general public the nuances of statutes like the civil rights statutes.”
The federal code commonly used in hate crime prosecutions prohibits the use of force or the threat of force in abridging the civil rights of an individual. Those specified rights include voting, enrollment in school, travel between states and the use of establishments serving the public like restaurants.
“There is no federal statute that makes it a crime to hate someone,” Miller said. “Nor is there a federal statute that criminalizes conduct that doesn’t relate to one of those federally protected activities.”
Bobby Brewster, 24, and his mother, Frankie Brewster, 49, are charged with kidnapping, and they and Danny J. Combs, 20, are charged with sexual assault, among other counts.
Also charged are Karen Burton, 46, of Chapmanville, her daughter Alisha Burton, 23, and George A. Messer, 27.
All six remained in custody Thursday in lieu of $100,000 bail each. Their defense attorneys either declined to comment or could not be reached Thursday.
Williams did not attend Thursday’s news conference. Her parents did, but they declined to comment on the investigation.
Megan Williams is expected to remain in the hospital for a few more days. Her mother said her daughter has not talked about her ordeal in detail.
The Associated Press and CNN generally do not identify suspected victims of sexual assault, but Megan and Carmen Williams agreed to release her name. Carmen Williams said she wanted people to know what her daughter had endured.