TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two weeks after a gunman killed one man and wounded two more in a Kansas shooting that might have been racially-motivated, state lawmakers appear unlikely to advance a bill that would double sentences for perpetrators convicted of hate crimes.
While the FBI investigates the shooting as a possible hate crime, lawmakers are looking at tougher penalties for a crime if a judge or jury finds that it is motivated by bias toward the "race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation of the victim." The bill would also require the state attorney general's office to collect data on hate crimes.
The debate comes just two weeks after the shooting in Olathe, Kansas, but the bill isn't new. Kansas City Democratic Sen. David Haley has introduced hate crime legislation in the past and said he wished lawmakers would understand the importance of hate crime legislation "without having to illustrate with such tragedy." He said he thought the tragedy might give the bill some momentum, but it's unclear whether the bill will get a vote.
Kansas has a hate crimes provision that allows a judge or jury to hand down a more stringent sentence if the perpetrator committed a crime with a hate bias, but it doesn't require a specific sentence. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming don't have hate crimes laws.
The bill would double the sentence of the underlying crime in cases where a judge or jury proved the perpetrator was motivated by bias. First degree murder charges could be doubled from life without parole for 50 years to life without parole for 100 years, effectively life imprisonment.
Haley said hate crime sentencing should be standard rather than left up to a judge or jury as it is now, especially in non-diverse communities.
"They may give the minimal sentence and a day," Haley said.
But Republican Sen. Steve Fitzgerald said requiring tougher sentences for hate crimes "ties the hands" of courts. He said the state shouldn't set in statute sentences for cases before they're tried.
Witnesses have said the Olathe gunman shouted racial slurs before opening fire on two Indian men, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injuring Alok Madasani. The gunman also shot and injured Ian Grillot when he tried to intervene. The FBI is investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime, and Adam Purinton has been charged with murder and attempted murder.
Haley said that since the Olathe shooting Kansas has been portrayed as intolerant. He also referred to a 2014 shooting in the same county when Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr. killed three people a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home.
"We need to underscore that we celebrate our diversity and join in the enhanced retribution and punishment of those that don't, especially since the world regrettably is paying attention to how equitable we are or are not," Haley said.
Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook said she thought current law was sufficient and that the crimes, while tragic, didn't represent the state as a whole.
Fitzgerald said any state could be held up as a model but called it "grandstanding" and said it didn't have anything to do with the bill or the outcome of hate crimes cases. Miller was convicted on one count of capital murder, three counts of attempted murder, and assault and weapons charges and sentenced to death. Kansas has not carried out the death sentence.
Ravi Mehra, a volunteer with the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City, said the community supported tougher hate crime penalties and spoke to Governor Sam Brownback about it during a meeting following the shooting. While Brownback sent a letter to India's Prime Minister expressing regret for the shooting, he didn't comment specifically on hate crimes legislation.