Last week, 17-year-old Ally Lee Steinfeld (pictured above) became the 21st trans murder in the United States this year. Her murderers gouged out her eyes, stabbed her in the genitals, set her body on fire and left her corpse to rot in a chicken coop. But police in Cabool, Missouri, have said her murder is “not a hate crime,” angering many who wonder how such a horrific act could possibly be considered as anything other than an example of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.
It turns out that police, investigators and prosecutors sometimes prefer to call murders “hate crimes” because doing so raises the burden of proof. Jack Levin, a hate crimes expert at Northeastern University in Boston, explained that successful prosecution of hate crimes requires prosecutors to prove they were motivated by bias, something that is difficult to prove.
Prosecutors can prove bias if the attacker uses an anti-LGBTQ slur during the attack or leaves offensive graffiti or hate propaganda (like a magazine or leaflet) at the scene. Similarly, investigators can prove bias by finding connection to anti-LGBTQ social media groups or hate sites on the attacker’s phone or computer. If a person is a member of such groups, that can provide solid evidence of bias.
“Without that information,” Levin said, “it becomes very difficult to prosecute the offender [for a hate crime].”
Research has shown that more than half of the cases submitted for hate crime prosecution get rejected for insufficient evidence. Also, while big American cities have special departments for investigating hate crimes, smaller police departments throughout the country lack the resources to track down the extra evidence required for hate crime prosecution.
Cabool, Missouri, has a population of 2,146 people, meaning that its police department is possibly too small to create a substantial hate crime case.
Three individuals, including Steinfeld’s girlfriend, have been arrested for her murder.
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