In early August Julius Sampson – known to friends and family as “Juice” – was gunned down in the parking lot of a restaurant at Hanes Mall in a shooting that took place in the broad daylight of a Tuesday afternoon. Sampson was a father, a husband, a barber who contributed to his community.
Added to that was a racial element. The victim is black, the man charged in his death is white. Swift calls for racial justice erupted on social media. Police and local politicians asked for patience while the case is investigated.
In a press conference in the slaying’s aftermath, Police Chief Catrina Thompson said both parties used racial epithets in the heat of the argument that preceded the shooting. But she said the killing did not appear to be racially motivated, and police were not at that point pursuing the case as a hate crime.
Adding heat to the conversation, Sampson’s death occurred as national debate raged over gun violence and whether it can be tied to political rhetoric aimed at minorities. After a gunman killed more than 20 people in a shooting in El Paso, police say the man charged told them he targeted Mexicans.
In this episode of “Twin City Talks” we speak with Kami Chavis. She’s the director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest School of Law and an expert on hate crimes, where victims are targeted for their race, ethnicity religion or gender/sexual minority status.
It wasn’t long after Sampson was killed that questions arose as to whether or not the killer would be charged with a hate crime.
Chavis says because of the way the state’s hate-crime statute is written, it wouldn’t apply to this case. That’s because North Carolina’s law only applies to misdemeanors, not felonious crimes like murder.
She points to the 2015 killings of three Muslims in Chapel Hill by a neighbor who had professed anti-religious sentiments. I was a high-profile crime that got national attention, but prosecutors couldn’t pursue a state hate-crime designation.
Chavis also says North Carolina’s statue is limited compared to some other states in who gets protected – for example it does not apply to crimes targeting LGBT people.
Even if the state did include felonies, it wouldn’t make the Sampson case easy to pursue.
“Just because we see a difference in race we’re not going to say necessarily that a hate crime has occurred,” she says.
As a former prosecutor, she says there are things she’d want to know before she brought a hate crime charge – what was occurring at the time of the crime. Yes, a racial epithets were used, according to police, but that alone may not be enough.
“It’s a very difficult burden,” she says.
Nationally, hate crimes are on the rise, she says.
“This summer we had El Paso. In a past year we could name another city. We could name another city: Dylan Roof in Charleston, S.C., and the list goes on,” she says. “What’s concerning for me and for many others who are looking at hate crimes and the trends is that even though we know we’re seeing an increase … There’s still not as much that’s being done on the federal or local level in terms of the training to investigate these crimes but also the detection to prevent these crimes.”
In the podcast, Chavis also says there are serious gaps in the data collected on hate crimes and explains the important symbolism behind the laws.