Arson of gay man’s home may not meet hate crime criteria

FBI spokesperson Stephen Emmett said Feb. 9 that the agency is not taking over the investigation. “The matter will stay with Carroll County authorities,” Emmett said.

Capt. Shane Taylor of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department said his agency is “the lead on this.”

“The FBI and ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) are assisting us,” he said.

Taylor said before anything can be determined on how to classify the crime — such as if it is a hate crime —suspects must be apprehended.

“There is arson, attempted murder, if we can prove it,” Taylor said.

If federal prosecutors decide the alleged attack on Staples fits the criteria, it would likely be the first case in Georgia charged under the new Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, according to Emmett.

Georgia is one of only five states in the country without a state hate crime law. While the federal law is helpful, it is very difficult to meet the federal criteria, noted Georgia Equality in a recent email to its members.

“Sadly, it’s looking more and more like the crime [against Staples] will not meet the standards the new law requires,” according to Georgia Equality’s February newsletter.

The federal hate crimes law strengthened the 1969 hate crimes law to add sexual orientation, gender identity and disability as new categories. However, for a hate crime based on sexual orientation to be meet the criteria for prosecution, three criteria have to be met: attempt to cause bodily injury, motivated by actual or perceived bias and also the crime must fall under the “commerce clause,” which means money must be interrupted in some way.

“That is what they have not yet been able to prove in this case,” Georgia Equality states.

Georgia Equality gives the example that if Staples had been renting the house that was burned down, then it might be possible to show that the landlord suffered a disruption of “flow of commerce,” meeting that third requirement.

Yates sent Georgia Equality a statement as well that says, “The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is committed to aggressively prosecuting hate crime. All reported incidents of bias-based violence against victims in the Northern District of Georgia are reviewed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and investigated by our partners at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“If federal jurisdiction exists, my office will make every effort to prosecute the offenders with every tool available — including the [Hate Crimes Prevention Act]. If no federal jurisdiction exists, we will continue to assist local and state authorities in their investigations and prosecutions in any way possible,” she added.

A hate crime is determined based on the evidence, said Taylor of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department.

“If we could show that it is, we could use that in court for a harsher penalty,” he said.

The federal hate crimes law, as well as some state hate crimes laws, allows for harsher punishments when it is proven that a crime is committed against a person because of who he or she is and to target a larger group of people — such as gay people.


Top photo: Chris Staples’ home was deliberately burned down last month and federal and local authorities continue to investigate. (courtesy WSB TV)