South Carolina one of 5 states without hate crime law; could 2017 be the year?

South Carolina one of 5 states without hate crime law; could 2017 be the year?

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - South Carolina is one of only five states without its own law to fight hate crimes. That's why the federal government's role in the case against Dylann Roof, the man accused of gunning down nine parishioners at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, was so crucial and historic.

WMBF News took a closer look at how the feds helped fill a gap in state legislation to prosecute the case.

"[Dylann Roof] was convicted of a hate crime and then sentenced to death for the murders," said Bill Nettles, a former US Attorney for South Carolina.

Not only was Roof held accountable for the deaths of his nine victims, but also for his motivations for the attack. It was a conviction only prosecutors at the federal level could get, because South Carolina doesn't have its own law against hate crimes.

"It shows South Carolina perhaps is not on pace with the rest of the country in terms of the significance they place on hate crimes," Nettles said.

Forty-five other states have made the move to fight hate crimes head on with their own legislation. But for South Carolina, a state with a history rife with racial tensions and the home of 12 known, active hate groups, it's had to rely on the federal government to prosecute cases involving civil rights.

But even that help from the federal level was fought by one of South Carolina's own, former Senator Jim Demint.

"Today only actions are crimes. If we pass this legislation, opinions will become crimes," said Demint in October of 2009.

That was before the federal hate crimes law was passed, and Demint spoke out against it. He said he believed the legislation would hurt people's freedom of opinion.

"This legislation essentially makes certain ideas criminal in that those ideas involved in a crime makes that crime more deserving of prosecution," Demint continued in his speech to Congress in 2009. "The problem, of course, is that politicians are claiming which thoughts are criminal and which are not."

Demint went on to say that individuals are already protected from hate crimes by the 14th Amendment, and he believed adding a new law, specific to certain characteristics of a victim, would hinder what is already in place.

"This amendment creates a special class of victims whose protections by the law will be, in Orwell's phrase, 'more equal than others,'" Demint continued. "If some are more equal, others will be less equal. This amendment will create the very problem it purports to solve."

WEB EXTRA – Watch the full speech by Jim Demint here:

But those on the other end of the debate say the argument comes down to perception.

"You would be hard-pressed to make the argument that we don't need hate crime legislation because we don't have hate crimes in South Carolina," Nettles said.  "There are hate crimes in South Carolina. There are those that argue there's already law in the books that allows you to address all of that, and that's true. But what hate crime legislation does is it shows the commitment to the notion that civil rights are very important."

While these cases can be tried for what they are on the state level, whether it's a murder or assault or any other crime, Nettles said, in some ways, South Carolina's lack of legislation for hate crimes could hold the state back.

"It says something about the evolution of the state or the lack of evolution, that there isn't hate crime legislation," Nettles said. "We're trying to attract talent to work in our communities. We need to say to folks, whose civil rights could potentially be violated, that we value them and we value them as participants in our democracy."

In the end, Nettles believes Roof's days in court sent a message to the state and the country.

"In reality, it's still a very difficult case to make with the way the statute is written, but clearly it wasn't difficult with what happened at Mother Emmanuel. That was a hate crime if there ever was one," Nettles said.

Could 2017 be the year South Carolina moves to enact a hate crime law?

Right now, there is a bill in the House Judiciary Committee that would do just that. As of July 2017, it was still in the Judiciary Committee, and no action has been taken since January.

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