The Justice Department has decided to charge Conrad Alvin Barrett, 27, with a hate crime in the “knockout game”-style attack against a black victim in Katy, Texas. The victim was a 79-year-old black man. The prosecution — and heavy punishment — of Barrett is clearly warranted if found guilty of the attack. However, the intervention of the Obama Administration is being questioned and is likely to add to preexisting concerns over the use of hate crimes to federalize state criminal actions and the standard for such prosecutions.
Notably, the federal charge could bring a higher sentence. However, this is a crime that could easily have been brought on the state level with an aggravator or separate charge for the abuse of the elderly. This elderly man lost three teeth and needed surgery to repair his jaw. At 79 years old, he could have easily died in this vicious attack. The knockout game has spread across the country and represents a terrible threat for everyone. These sucker punches often result in people hitting the ground unconscious and risking a serious or fatal head injury beyond the punch itself. Prosecutors and police across the country are ramping up efforts to combat the game. Most of these games take people at random regardless of age or gender, though I have been many elderly and women targeted (presumably because of the greater likelihood of a “knockout”).
One issue potentially complicating this case is that Barrett has a proven history of mental illness (as a bipolar individual) as well as a history of alcoholism.
When police examined his phone, they found videos where he used racial epithets and expressed in interest in the knockout game. In the one that seems the basis for the federal charge, he reportedly states “That plan is to see if I were to hit a black person, would this be nationally televised?”
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson says that that is a hate crime and therefore a federal matter.
A conviction under the federal hate crimes statute would mean a maximum 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Various critics have charged that there have been a slew of black on white crimes, including a number of knockout games where the race of the victim is referenced by the attackers.
Many have questioned the use of the hate crimes law to federalize state crimes, often giving prosecutors a second bite at conviction following acquittals of defendants. Such arguments do not mean that the racial element should be ignored. Rather, such elements can be used as an aggravator to increase sentences by the state court. If hate crimes are federalized, there remains the question on the standard to apply and whether it applies consistently in cases where race is referenced. The statement above does indicate an intent to target a victim on the basis of race — putting aside the mental illness issue. However, the evidence also suggests that this man wanted to play this disgusting game.
We have previously discussed how hate crimes have raised free speech issues (here and here and here) which is not an issue in this case. However, we have also discussed the uncertain standard for such prosecutions in past cases (here). I would have the same concerns about charging black teenagers with crimes when they say that they targeted a “white bitch” this year in Chicago. Racial references are unfortunately ubiquitous in this country. The question is whether such cases should be federalized and what standard applies to crimes with a racial reference.
Do you think that this case should be tried as a hate crime by the feds or left as an assault at the state level?