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What a hate crime case might look like for the Colorado Springs shooter

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are learning this morning about another mass shooting, this time in Chesapeake, Va., where a gunman killed six people in a Walmart store. Police say the shooter was an employee who also wounded at least four people before dying of a self-inflicted wound. This happened just a few days after a shooter walked into an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs and killed five people. The suspect in that shooting is 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, who is in custody. Investigators are still gathering evidence to charge the suspect with murder and potentially with committing a hate crime.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Here to talk about what a hate crime prosecution might look like, we're joined by NPR's Adrian Florido. All right, I realize, you know, different states have different definitions about what makes a hate crime, but how does Colorado, Adrian, handle these kinds of crimes?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Well, in Colorado, they're called bias-motivated crimes, and that's a crime in which an attacker is driven by prejudice against a victim's race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. At a press conference Sunday, the day after the shooting, the district attorney for Colorado Springs, Michael Allen, said this shooting is being investigated as a potential hate crime. The challenge is proving motive, A. In this case, how do prosecutors show that the suspect was motivated by bias against the LGBTQ community? Some legal experts say the mere fact that the shooting was at a gay club on a night when it was commemorating victims of anti-transgender violence could be pretty powerful evidence on its own. And, of course, investigators will be scouring the suspect's background, digital trail, text messages in search of more evidence of anti-gay prejudice.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So let's say they find the evidence that they're looking for. How hard is it going to be to prove a hate crime in Colorado?

FLORIDO: Well, it used to be that prosecutors had to convince a jury that a suspect was motivated solely by hate. That made convictions very hard to win. But last year, state legislators in Colorado rewrote the law, and now prosecutors only have to prove that bias was one factor in a suspect's motivation. I spoke with Bilal Aziz, who leads hate crime prosecutions in the district attorney's office in Denver.

BILAL AZIZ: So the ability to say to a jury, you don't have to find that his only reason for acting was his racial or sexual orientation-based animus. Even if it was part of why he was acting the way he was acting, you may still convict.

FLORIDO: Aziz said prosecutors across the state have welcomed this new tool as a powerful one in the fight against hate.

MARTÍNEZ: So what does it mean, then, if the suspect in the Colorado Springs shooting - if there is a charge and then a conviction of a hate crime, what does that mean at that point?

FLORIDO: Well, it's important to note that the most serious charges the suspect is likely to face our first-degree murder charges, which would mean a life sentence if convicted. If convicted of hate crimes, that could mean several years in prison on those charges. But in practical terms, that doesn't mean much if you're already serving life for murder. Regardless, Bilal Aziz, the Denver prosecutor, said if the evidence is there, filing those charges is still important.

AZIZ: Whether or not it is a lead or top charge, it is still important to signal to communities that we see them and that we are not going to allow this behavior to continue and pursue those charges where appropriate.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So it sounds like there's still a lot that has to happen. But immediately, what's going to happen next?

FLORIDO: Well, the suspect got out of the hospital last night and is now in county jail. A first court appearance is set for today. It's happening virtually. But we still don't know when formal criminal charges will be filed. The local district attorney said earlier this week that investigators want to gather as much evidence as possible before filing those charges.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Adrian Florido. Thanks a lot, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.