ATLANTA (AP) -- The case of a Black female Army reservist who police say was beaten by a White man in front of her 7-year-old daughter could renew the call for a hate crime law in Georgia.
The state is one of five without a hate crime law on the books after the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 struck down legislation passed four years earlier, ruling it "unconstitutionally vague." Advocates lobbying for a new law have been met with opposition, but Tashawnea Hill's beating could be a rallying cry in the upcoming legislative session.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and state NAACP have pointed to the incident as proof such a law is needed in the state.
"A crime motivated by hatred toward a race or a religion is a crime against the entire community," said Bill Nigut, the ADL's southeast regional director. "We now, once again, have a dramatic reminder of what hatred compels some people to do and the violence that hatred can cause."
The Justice Department's civil rights division in Washington has initiated a probe into Hill's case. Police say Tashawnea Hill was kicked and punched Sept. 9 as Troy D. West screamed racial slurs outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Morrow, about 15 miles southeast of Atlanta. Authorities say West, 47, became enraged when Hill told him to be careful after he nearly hit her daughter while opening the restaurant's door.
West faces misdemeanor state charges, though investigators have referred the case to federal authorities -- their only recourse for stiffer penalties if West is convicted.
Racist hate groups have grown in the wake of the economic crisis and the election of the country's first Black president, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes. The group has documented 926 hate groups operating in the U.S., and says the number has increased by more than 50 percent since 2000.
The federal government first passed hate crimes legislation in 1968, and federal and state efforts to toughen penalties for hate crimes gained momentum after the fatal beating of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard in 1968. State hate crime laws vary widely.
Nigut said he hopes the details of the Cracker Barrel incident will also bolster his case to the state legislature in the upcoming session, since not every local case that could be classified as a hate crime is picked up by federal authorities.
"When you put a face on a crime like this, it's more than just a debate," said Nigut, who has lobbied for new hate crime legislation since the old bill was tossed out. "The community should know that law enforcement and our courts are there protecting us from all crimes of hatred."
Nigut said he has already begun approaching lawmakers seeking support to get a bill passed.
Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia have some form of hate crime law. Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming do not.
The issue must be a priority for the state, said Edward DuBose, head of Georgia's NAACP chapter.
"We don't need to wait for more incidents to take place," DuBose said. "We need a proactive approach to something we see happening in Georgia."