Updated: 12:21 a.m. Oct. 28
The gunman who opened fire on a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday killing 11 people and wounding six others has been charged by federal law enforcement officials who say he targeted his victims because of their Jewish faith.
Robert Bowers has been charged with 29 crimes: 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer, and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. (Bowers was also charged Saturday by Pittsburgh police with crimes including 11 counts of homicide.)
“The crimes of violence are based upon the federal civil rights laws prohibiting hate crimes,” per the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of Pennsylvania.
But what makes a crime a hate crime — and what does it take to prove one?
What is a hate crime?
A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism — with an added element of bias, according to the FBI.
The bureau explains: “For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a ‘criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.’ Hate itself is not a crime, and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”
Why is this a hate crime?
Pittsburgh Bureau FBI Special Agent in Charge Bob Jones said Bowers “targeted [the victims] simply because of their faith.”
Reports have linked Bowers to anti-semitic online postings and anti-semitic comments made immediately before and after the shooting, which the Anti-Defamation League says is likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
Why is the FBI investigating the Pittsburgh shooting?
Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said the shooting was being considered a federal violation and the FBI would be the primary investigating agency.
The FBI helps local jurisdictions investigate related acts like arson or murder and that evidence may be used to bring civil rights charges against a defendant, the Guardian reported. Civil rights is an area of law that falls under the U.S. Justice Department’s purview.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it’s been enforcing federal hate crimes laws since 1968, when Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first federal hate crimes statute.
“The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice enforces federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on religion in education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and access to public facilities. In addition, the Civil Rights Division prosecutes bias crimes committed against individuals because of their religion and acts of vandalism and arson against houses of worship,” per the DOJ.
Does Pennsylvania have hate crimes laws?
Yes. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 45 states — Pennsylvania included — and the District of Columbia have passed hate crime laws, but they vary widely in how a hate crime is defined and prosecuted.
But it is not unusual for federal authorities to take control of a hate crimes case of this magnitude, and given the civil rights component, it falls squarely in the purview of federal authorities.
How common are hate crimes in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania?
It’s almost impossible to say due to deficiencies with how the crimes are catalogued.
According to FBI data, Pennsylvania counted 61 reported hate crimes in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.
However, hate crimes are underreported here, according to PennLive, which noted the 61 reported hate crimes fell “well below those reported in similar-sized states and fewer than even Utah, which has a population one-quarter that of Pennsylvania.”
Against that backdrop, an FBI report on 2016 hate crime statistics in Pennsylvania recorded 14 hate crimes incidents in the Pittsburgh area compared to Philadelphia’s 18. The FBI recorded 11 hate crimes in Pittsburgh motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry, two related to religion, and one related to sexual orientation in 2016.
In 2017, ProPublica said the FBI relies on local law enforcement agencies to identify and report crimes motivated by bias, but many agencies fumble this task.
How do you prove a hate crime?
Convicting a defendant of a hate crime requires proving the crime was motivated by their hatred of a victim’s or victims’ actual or perceived race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Often that requires prosecutors introduce evidence of that bias.
Perceived bias is covered by federal law. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed in 2009, makes it a crime “to willfully cause bodily injury, or attempt to do so using a dangerous weapon, because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Benjamin Wagner, former U.S. Attorney for California’s Eastern District, prosecuted dozens of hate crimes throughout his nearly 25-year career and told PBS, “It’s notoriously difficult.”
“You need to prove not just the incident, but the state of mind of the defendant — that what they intended was hate-motivated,” Wagner said. “That’s never easy and often involves not just looking at the incident, but going back and investigating the background of the defendant.”
What sentence is Bowers facing if convicted of hate crimes?
In announcing that the U.S. Department of Justice would be filing hate crime charges in this case, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said they may seek the death penalty for Bowers.