Why Haven’t the Atlanta Spa Shootings That Left 6 Asian Women Dead Been Deemed Hate Crimes? It’s Complicated.

The Asian American community and its allies continues to grieve the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings Tuesday.
The Asian American community and its allies continues to grieve the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings Tuesday.(Getty)

SPLC's Scott McCoy explained that it's partially because of the legal definition of a hate crime, but said white privilege also plays an indisputable role.

It seems there are still more questions than answers following Tuesday night’s Atlanta spa shootings, which left eight dead and one injured. What was the accused attacker’s relationship with Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa? And what brought him to those locations that night?

While investigators with the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office have said the motive of suspect 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long in the killings is still unknown, one obvious question stands out in the minds of those in Asian American communities and their allies: why has there been no official mention of hate in relation to these crimes?

“Hate crimes are not reported and they're not investigated and they're not prosecuted to the level that they should be in our country,” Interim Deputy Legal Director Scott McCoy, of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told Inside Edition Digital. “This is an opportunity for law enforcement to do so.”

Federally, the Department of Justice defines a hate crime as “a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.”

While advocates argue that a white man charged with entering Asian American businesses on a shooting spree that killed six Asian women – Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue and Soon Chung Park – should fit the criteria when it comes to this crime, the federal branch has little to do with classifying it as a hate crime.

In fact, even at a state level, legally calling something a hate crime is complicated.

“It’s different from state to state,” McCoy explained. “In some states, the hate crime is an offense in and of itself. And in other states, it’s what’s called a sentencing enhancement.”

Georgia is one of those states in which a crime is deemed hateful as a sentencing enhancement, which would mean the Atlanta spa attacks wouldn’t be legally designated a hate crime until after the trial, and only if the judge and jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator targeted the victims based on the race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.

“You can prosecute Long for murder, and if the prosecutor also proves beyond a reasonable doubt not only that he committed the murder, but that he selected the victims based on one of the characteristics that's identified in the statute … then the judge can increase the sentence,” McCoy said. “Let’s say he [gets] 10 years for the murder, then the judge could increase that to 12 years because of the [hate] aspect.”

Even so, McCoy and the public at large are troubled by the language used– and more specifically, avoided– in authorities’ public statements thus far.

“If the prosecutor wants to make the argument [for hate] to the jury during the trial, the prosecutor needs to be telling law enforcement, the detectives, ‘You need to be looking for the evidence, so that I can make that case to the jury,’” McCoy said. “What they could be saying now is … ‘We're investigating it as a hate crime.’ Because that would at least signal to the community that they're taking it seriously.”

Many called attention to Wednesday’s briefing, during which Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said of Long during a press briefing, “he was pretty much fed up and kind of end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”

On Friday, many were further outraged by the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office incorrect abbreviation of Korean names when they released the complete list of victims, claiming that the oversight speaks directly to the failing of authorities to take seriously the race of the victims and how it plays a role in the crime.

Neither the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office nor the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office have responded to Inside Edition Digital's requests for comment.

“It set the tone for the investigation," McCoy said of Baker's comments. "It signals to the community that perhaps law enforcement is not taking this seriously as a potential hate crime, which doesn't do anything to increase faith and credibility of law enforcement in that minority community."

McCoy said the statement seemed to indicate to him that law enforcement's investigation into the shootings has thus far leaned heavily on Long’s testimony.

“Law enforcement have been dismissive of the idea that it might have been motivated by race because they sat him down and asked him? I mean, that's not how you investigate a hate crime,” McCoy said, adding that Long has plenty of reasons not to admit his killing spree had anything to do with the race or gender of his victims, since “he doesn’t want to face a stiffer penalty because it might have been a hate crime.”  

So why hasn’t there been a firmer call for justice in this case? “White privilege,” McCoy said.

“I think it's safe to venture that if he had been a Black suspect and he had just killed four white women, that he probably would be treated differently than this guy was,” he continued.

News about Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker’s own potential biases, including what many believed to be posts on his Facebook page that featured racist language about China in relation to COVID-19, was also troubling to McCoy, who believes it may also be part of why a hate crime designation has not yet been mentioned in the investigation.

“I don't think that guy should have anything to do with this case anymore, if the reporting is accurate about some of the past things that he was involved or associated with,” McCoy said. “Any kind of a bias on the part of law enforcement is a serious problem in any situation, but I think maybe more here, because how hard you're investigating, how closely you're looking for the evidence of the bias, is impacted by whether or not you might have some bias yourself.”

Baker has since been removed as spokesperson on this case, and Cherokee County Communications Director Erika Neldner announced Thursday that she will be handling further media inquiries, according to the Associated Press. Baker did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's request for comment.

"In as much as [Baker's] words were taken or construed as insensitive or inappropriate, they were not intended to disrespect any of the victims, the gravity of this tragedy, or express empathy or sympathy for the subject," Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said following public outcry regarding Baker's statement.

Outside of human biases, McCoy believes hesitancy to classify the case as a hate crime may have to do with Georgia’s short history with hate crime prosecutions.

Georgia was one of four states that did not have any hate crime legislation until last June, when Gov. Brian Kemp signed a hate crimes bill into law following blowback related to the killing of 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, whose death came allegedly at the hands of three white men. Those men have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

“There hasn't been any kind of high-profile opportunities like this to potentially prosecute under the new hate crimes statute,” McCoy said. “Had they had a hate crimes statute on the books for a longer time, that had been tested in the courts, that law enforcement had been operating under... Obviously practice makes perfect, right? And so, I think they might have been in a better position to deal with circumstances like this.”

Georgia had attempted to pass hate crime laws in the past, but the state’s Supreme Court struck it down in 2004, deeming it too vague.

The ways vary in which states come to designate crimes as hateful, how they determine whether they’re classified as penalty enhancements and what motives count as hateful. Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming do not have any hate crime laws at all.

And even though federally, the Department of Justice does set aside funds to help local law enforcement identify and track hate crimes, reporting is still “woefully inadequate,” McCoy said. Studies show up to 86% of law enforcement around the country either reported they had zero hate crimes or failed to report any data to the FBI at all, he said.  

Ultimately, the country relies on its leaders to set a positive example in combating hate crimes – and the Trump Administration’s discriminatory rhetoric may have made space for hateful crimes to occur, McCoy said. 

“When the former leader of the nation traffics in bias and racially charged statements like Kung Flu and the Wuhan Virus and things like that, he set a tone and example for the country that makes room for this kind of bias and these kinds of attacks,” he said.

In fact, racist anti-Asian hashtags spiked after President Donald Trump first tweeted "Chinese virus," a term the World Health Organization urged people to avoid using when referencing the novel coronavirus, according to a peer-reviewed study published Thursday by the American Journal of Public Health. Those who used the hashtag "#chinesevirus" were more likely to include other anti-Asian hashtags in their tweets, the study found. 

“It’s all part of the mix," McCoy said of the tone set by using that type of language. "Of creating a culture and an environment where hate crimes can happen.”