Atlanta Spa Shootings Pose Potential Test for Limits of Georgia's New Hate Crime Law

Last summer, Georgia passed a long-stalled hate crime bill following the February 2020 death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was allegedly targeted, detained and fatally shot by three white men while jogging in the south Georgia suburbs.

But in the wake of the recent mass shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead—six of them women with Asian heritage—activists, public officials, and both local and national lawmakers are asking why the new statute is not being applied by prosecutors.

The legislation is the first of its kind in Georgia, which until then was one of four states still lacking such statutes despite more than a decade of advocacy. It allows additional penalties for crimes motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, who admitted to shooting up three Atlanta-area spas because of his "sex addiction," was charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. A hate crime charge could be added later, but investigators have not yet identified what they see as sufficient evidence.

Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said during a press conference that Long flatly denied race as a motivating factor and cited a desire to "eliminate temptation" to visit the spas, which he frequented in the past.

Amid a nationwide uptick in attacks on Asian Americans, many are dubious about Long's explanation or feel prosecutors have enough to pursue the statute at least as a gender-based crime. State Representative Marvin Lim (D-Norcross), an attorney and an Asian American, said not pursuing hate crime penalties in the case would be a wasted opportunity.

"I certainly believe there is enough evidence, based on the perpetrator's own statements, to classify this as a sex or gender-based hate crime," Lim told Newsweek. "In regard to potential racial-based motivation, we know the perpetrator has rejected that, but I keep coming back to the fact that we don't just believe what any perpetrator or suspect says."

Lim, who advocated for the addition of a hate crime statute in Georgia for more than a decade prior to his election to the General Assembly in 2020, added that the larger context of a crime like the Atlanta shootings could be key.

"It's very hard for a reasonable person to believe that he had no intention of going to those specific places and did not know who he would be targeting," he said.

Hate crimes, which were introduced at the federal level in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, are notoriously difficult to prosecute. This is particularly true if the alleged motive is anti-Asian bias because there is no universal symbol used against Asian Americans, such as a swastika, The New York Times reported.

Gene Rossi, a former U.S. prosecutor, said proving anti-Asian bias in the Atlanta shooting could be additionally difficult because the victims identified along a spectrum of Asian identity—whereas in the Arbery case, three white individuals targeted a Black individual.

In proving hate crimes, success comes down to whether prosecutors can meet the elements of the crime, according to Rossi. However, he added that circumstantial evidence, like membership in a certain hate group or the demographics of the victims, can be powerful in pursuing bias charges.

That being said, the perpetrator's motives and state of mind play just as big a role in proving hate crimes as the identities of the victims.

"The public needs to know that the great prosecutors are able to focus like a laser beam on the facts supporting the elements of the crime. A great prosecutor should not succumb to public pressure to indicting a charge if he or she can't prove it beyond a responsible doubt," Rossi said.

For Lim, that statute is largely symbolic rather than a punitive measure or a deterrent.

"It's sending a message that yes, these are crimes, but we are adding a sentencing enhancement because we as a society do not believe that racial, gender, etc. should be motivation to harm someone," he said.

In response to the fatal shootings, Lim and his fellow Asian American legislators, Representatives Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) and Sam Park (D-Lawrenceville), and state Senators Michelle Au (D-Johns Creek) and Sheikh Rahman (D-Lawrenceville), are introducing legislation aimed at violence prevention, outreach and victim restitution.

Under House Bill 789 and Senate Bill 311, the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council would be required to train law enforcement in community response, intervention and proactive outreach methods that are culturally and language accessible, according to a press release. House Bill 787 and Senate Bill 308 also establish a language translation system within the state's emergency communications.

House Bill 788 and Senate Bill 309 would require a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a firearm, notwithstanding the earlier completion of a background check by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Anyone who purchases or sells a firearm before the end of the waiting period would be subject to a felony charge.

Those in violation of selling or buying a firearm before the waiting period would be subject to a felony charge.

Georgia spa shooting
ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 18: Flowers adorn Gold Spa during a demonstration against violence towards women and Asians following Tuesday night's shooting in which three women were gunned down on March 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead, including six Asian women. Megan Varner/Getty Images/Getty Images