Will Justice Dept. bring hate crime charges in Kansas shooting?

In this undated photo provided by Kranti Shalia, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, right, poses for photo with his wife Sunayana Dumala in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the middle of a crowded bar, a 51-year-old former air traffic controller yelled at two Indian men - Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani - to
In this undated photo provided by Kranti Shalia, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, right, poses with his wife, Sunayana Dumala, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Kranti Shalia via AP)

WASHINGTON — The widow of an engineer shot dead in Kansas by a man allegedly shouting “Get out of my country!” has demanded that the government stop future hate crimes. But will President Trump’s Justice Department pursue federal hate crime charges against the perpetrator?

“I need an answer from the government,” Sunayana Dumala, widow of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, said during a press conference last week. “What are they going to do to stop this hate crime?”

Authorities say Kuchibhotla was shot dead at a tavern by suspect Adam Purinton, 51, who reportedly questioned Kuchibhotla and his friend, both software engineers from India, about whether they were in the country legally. Other witnesses said he hurled “racial slurs” at the pair, and later told a witness he had shot two “Iranian” men. Bystander Ian Grillot, 24, tried to tackle the gunman and was also wounded.

The FBI has not labeled the attack a hate crime yet and is still investigating whether it qualifies as one. A hate crime is defined by federal law as an offense motivated by hatred for someone’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. Kansas does not have a hate crime statute, which means that Purinton will not face those charges if the federal government doesn’t bring them.

The local district attorney has already charged Purinton with first-degree murder, which means he could face the death penalty in Kansas if convicted. But the federal government sometimes brings additional charges, to convey the message that hate crimes will not be tolerated. In a recent case, white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a black church in South Carolina in 2015, was tried and convicted on federal murder and hate crime charges last year and sentenced to death; he still faces state murder charges.

FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton told Yahoo News that the FBI is actively probing whether a hate crime occurred. “Our role in this investigation is to see if anyone’s civil rights were violated,” in addition to assisting local law enforcement, Patton said. The ultimate decision could come from the civil rights division of the Justice Department, currently run by interim head Thomas Wheeler, or by the U.S. Attorney in Kansas, Tom Beall, who took the job last year. A spokesman for Beall did not return a request for comment.

The president has not yet spoken out about the crime, though his press secretary addressed the incident Monday after also condemning a recent spate of threats to Jewish schools and community centers. “I don’t want to get ahead of law enforcement, but I was asked the other day about the story in Kansas, the shooting in Kansas,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “And while the story is evolving, early reports out of Kansas are equally disturbing.”

Trump’s former rival, Hillary Clinton, tweeted Monday that the president “must step up and speak out” about the crime.

Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, said the anti-Semitic incidents Spicer mentioned constitute a reason for the Justice Department to intervene in the Kansas case. The federal government should bring charges to send a message that hate crimes won’t be tolerated, he said.

“Given vandalization of Jewish cemeteries, given the repeated bomb threats to Jewish schools, I think you’d look to see the Department of Justice to send a message that at the federal level, this won’t be tolerated,” Miller said.

Miller added that the federal prosecutor could also bring its own, separate hate crime charges, while allowing the local prosecutor to handle the murder charge.

“Provided the evidence is as clear as it looks, I think the Justice Department would look to bring charges at the federal level but would also coordinate with the local prosecutor to make sure the two aren’t getting into each other’s way,” he said.

Federal hate crime prosecutions are rare, with federal prosecutors turning down nearly 90 percent of cases referred to them since the hate crime statute became law in 2009. The most common reason prosecutors gave for not bringing charges was insufficient evidence.

A federal prosecution could mean a tougher sentence for Purinton if he’s convicted of the crime.

“A hate crime charge could be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing,” said Jack Levin, a criminologist and a professor emeritus at Northeastern University. “It could mean the difference between life in prison without parole eligibility, versus the death penalty.”

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