How Do You Define Hate?

A recent attack shows that defining and prosecuting bias crimes is still difficult.

BY Trudy Ring

January 08 2013 9:00 AM ET

Owens, left, and girlfriend.

Passage of an LGBT-inclusive federal hate crimes law was a highlight of President Obama’s first term. But a recent case indicates it’s still a challenge to prosecute hate crimes and win convictions.

Mallory Owens was beaten Thanksgiving Day at the Mobile, Ala., home of her girlfriend, Ally Hawkins, suffering multiple skull fractures. Local prosecutors charged Travis Hawkins Jr., Ally’s brother, with second-degree assault; he has pleaded not guilty. Owens has made conflicting statements about the case and stopped short of calling the attack a hate crime.

Upon release from the hospital, Owens returned to the Hawkins home, where Travis Hawkins Sr. held a press conference to say his son had no anti-lesbian bias. Ally Hawkins has said her brother was enraged because she and Owens had used drugs and engaged in prostitution. Owens later released a statement saying she felt threatened by the Hawkins family and that the attack could be a bias crime. But then she told a Mobile TV station that most of the statement, written by her attorney, was untrue. Her attorney withdrew from the case, and Owens’s family told the media they believe Ally Hawkins is controlling her.

The facts may finally come out in court. Alabama’s hate-crimes law does not cover attacks motivated by sexual orientation, so a hate-crime charge would have to be brought by federal authorities. The U.S. Justice Department and FBI are investigating to see if the attack qualifies. Owens’s family and activists say the second-degree assault charge is insufficient and should instead be attempted murder.

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