Rock Hill gay beating prompts SC hate crime bill

After April 9 beating, lawmaker will re-introduce bill

adys@heraldonline.comApril 20, 2011 

— In the wake of a brutal beating of a gay man caught on a Rock Hill store's videotape, the sponsor of a hate crime bill that last year went nowhere in the General Assembly plans to re-introduce the bill next week and ask that it be discussed immediately by legislators.

However, two key area Republican legislators said Tuesday that while the crime against Joshua Esskew at the Spot convenience store in Rock Hill is "horrific," existing laws are enough to prosecute people who violently attack others - regardless of who the victim is or the motives of the attackers.

And a spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday the newly elected governor does not support state hate crime laws, either.

Still, state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, the bill's sponsor, said he will ask that the bill be taken directly to the House floor Tuesday when the Legislature reconvenes after a week off.

Hate crimes should not be tolerated and deserve harsher punishments, he said.

"We need an all-inclusive hate crime law in this state that protects all people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation," King said Tuesday.

Esskew was beaten April 9 by at least eight men at the store, after he was hit in the head by a bottle. The incident started, Esskew said, after one man called him a gay slur and curse words.

"We have an obligation to make our communities safe for all people," King said. "Hate against anyone is wrong, and the acting out of that hate in a crime needs punishment that is severe."

The York County Sheriff's Office is investigating the beating as an assault by a mob inflicting serious injury - a new law that took effect last year and carries a maximum punishment of 25 years in prison.

But South Carolina has no hate crime laws.

The FBI is investigating the beating to see if what happened to Esskew was a hate crime or a violation of his civil rights under federal law. No arrests have been made.

Since Esskew's beating became a national story, gay rights groups have renewed a call for a South Carolina hate crime law.

King's bill would make it a felony with punishments of two to 15 years in prison for someone convicted of assaulting, threatening or intimidating a person based on race, religion or sexual preference.

But the bill drew no co-sponsors last year and never got a hearing in the Statehouse.

Similar attempts have been made by some black legislators the S.C. Senate over the years, but no action has ever been taken. South Carolina is one of just a few states that have no hate crime laws.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said he would help King try to pass the hate crime bill.

The beating on videotape was "deplorable," Rutherford said, "There is no doubt that was a mob that attacked him. This is everything that is wrong with our youth today."

Police have said they believe all the suspects are black, but Esskew, the white victim, has said that he believes he was the victim of a hate crime because he is gay - not for racial reasons.

Both King and Rutherford, members of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the color of the suspects makes no difference - victims need to be protected if they are beaten because of their race, religion or sexual identity.

"I don't care if the people who did this are black, white, blue, or green," Rutherford said. "If this man was attacked because he is gay, we have a problem in this state that can be addressed by a hate crime law that punishes this kind of crime.

"The time has come to address hate in our state."

But state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, who represents part of York County and sits on the Judiciary Committee, said existing laws that prosecute violent crime - bolstered just last year - are sufficient without adding hate crimes to the list.

What happened to Esskew is brutal and wrong, Delleney said, but existing laws can handle prosecuting those responsible.

"We do not need special status for all people," said Delleney, a defense lawyer by trade. "A crime is a crime. A murder is a murder. An assault is an assault.

"We don't need to make it more severe because of the status of someone."

Delleney described the call for a hate crime bill "political correctness run amok."

The crime against Esskew was "terrible," said state Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York and the former prosecutor for York County. But federal hate crime laws, coupled with stiff penalties for assaults, are enough.

Adding another part of a crime for prosecutors to prove also would make it more difficult to convict violent people such as the ones who beat up Esskew, Pope said.

"Traditionally, we never had to prove motive, we just had to prove a crime was committed," Pope said. "With a hate crime law, prosecutors would have to show why the crime was committed, too."

Haley does not support enacting any state hate crime laws, spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement late Tuesday.

"All violent crimes are hate crimes, and it is hard to explain the difference to a widow or child who has lost a parent to a violent crime," Godfrey said. "In our judicial system, the prosecutor, the jury and the judge can and should make determination as to a violent criminal's motives and can charge and sentence them accordingly."

King and Rutherford expect opposition from conservatives and Republicans on passing a hate crime bill, but they vowed to push the issue.

Gays need the protection of a tougher law that ensures they can live without fear, Rutherford said.

"Hate has become a family value in South Carolina," Rutherford said, "and that is just wrong."

The Esskew incident might have provided the opening for a larger debate on hate in the state, King said.

"Sometimes, one incident opens the door to a bigger picture," King said. "What we see when we look at the big picture in South Carolina is that wrong is wrong. Our streets need to be safe.

"People should not be afraid to live in any way that harms no one else."

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