The reckoning came a day after Cherokee County authorities – the first of two places people were shot dead on Tuesday – downplayed the racist dimensions of a rampage that killed six women of Asian descent. A sheriff’s spokesman had said the suspect was having “a bad day” and that “sex addiction,” not race, was likely the driving factor.
These statements were sharply challenged Thursday by leaders of the Asian-American community, who denounced them as an “attempt to protect the shooter,” as well as by Democratic politicians and law enforcement experts.
The spokesman, Captain Jay Baker, was removed from the case Thursday when the sheriff’s office expressed “regret” at his choice of words. Meanwhile, Atlanta police officers – the second scene of the mass shooting – appeared to distance themselves from the comments, noting that a racist motive, among other things, was being considered.
“Our investigation covers everything,” said Charles Hampton Jr., assistant police chief of Atlanta.
The killings came amid a national surge in anti-Asian violence that coincided with the global spread of the coronavirus, a pandemic that former President Donald Trump and his supporters derisively refer to as the “Chinese virus” or “kung flu”.
This rhetoric – and whether it contributed to the hostile environment in which the Atlanta area shootings took place – was at the center of the often strained hearings on Thursday on Capitol Hill.
During a House panel examining the emergence of anti-Asian American discrimination, Rep. Grace Meng (DN.Y.) reacted visibly emotionally to an opening statement by a Republican Congressman accusing Democrats of overseeing freedom of speech.
“Your president, your party and your colleagues can discuss problems with any other country you wish, but you don’t have to do this by keeping an eye on the back of Asian Americans across the country, our grandparents and others our children, ”Meng said to Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.) as her voice began to rise and tears filled her eyes. “This hearing should address the pain and agony of our community in order to find solutions, and we will not let you take our votes away from us.”
Roy said “All Americans deserve protection” in the days following the shootings, which were spread across three spas. To draw attention to the need for law and order, Roy quoted “old Texas sayings” celebrating lynchings.
“We believe in justice. There are old sayings in Texas about “Find that whole rope in Texas and get a tall oak,” he said.
Roy’s comments were thrown back by Democrats and critics, who beat the congressman for using a violent, racist force.
The question of how the alleged shooter will be brought to justice is weighed up by investigators and prosecutors. One of the biggest unknowns is whether hate crime legislation will be enforced.
Until last year, Georgia was one of the few countries that lacked its own law on hate crimes. That all changed after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot after three white men followed him while jogging. The riot sparked state parliament action, and the spa shootings give prosecutors their first high-profile chance to put them into action.
Georgia Republican Chuck Efstration, a Republican who enforced the law, said it intended to provide particularly harsh penalties for crimes where “the perpetrator’s prejudice and prejudice attacks not just the victims but the perpetrator entire society are. ”
“Thank goodness law enforcement will have the option to charge this as a hate crime if the facts support it,” he said in an interview.
The categories protected by law include not only race, but also gender, religion and national origin. That makes it pretty broad, said Jessica Gabel Cino, a law professor at Georgia State University, and possibly applicable to this week’s shootings.
“It could certainly be the turning point to have a law on the books instead of actually applying the law on the books,” she said.
Cino said investigators will scrutinize suspect Robert Aaron Long’s previous testimony and social media posts for evidence of bias. Even if it weren’t, the nature of the targets he chose meant that the prosecutors would have a lot to do.
“The majority of the victims are women and they are Asians,” she said. “These are two protected statuses.”
Long was charged with eight murders on Wednesday, and police said he confessed to the crimes. In Georgia, the death penalty is a possible punishment for murder, along with life imprisonment, with or without parole. Adding hate crime charges to the mix, Cino said, could give prosecutors valuable leverage in any appeal negotiation.
Long’s first court visit, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, was canceled after he waived in writing through his attorney, according to the Cherokee County Prosecutor’s Office.
J. Daran Burns, a Georgia attorney, has been appointed by the Cherokee County Indigent Defense Office to represent Long, the firm said Thursday.
“Our condolences go to the victims and their families,” Burns said in a statement Thursday morning. “We are working on behalf of our client Robert Aaron Long to investigate the facts and circumstances of this incident.”
No further trials are planned in the Cherokee County case, and none have been announced for the Atlanta cases.
While the investigation continues, President Biden and Vice President Harris planned to meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta on Friday during a previously scheduled trip to the city to review the benefits of the newly signed US 1.9 trillion aid package Dollars to apply.
Biden intends to “speak about his commitment to combating xenophobia, intolerance and hatred,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.
The president ordered on Thursday that flags should be hoisted on half of the staff at the spa shootings in the White House and on federal grounds “as a sign of respect for the victims of senseless acts of violence”.
The order that came in a proclamation is valid until sunset Monday. It came as vigils for the victims were held nationwide on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
In January, Biden responded to reports of increasing anti-Asian violence with a memo instructing the Justice Department to expand its collection of data on hate crimes. However, such an effort has long been difficult and incomplete as the department relies on reporting from more than 15,000 local law enforcement agencies, many of whom are not funded, trained and motivated to investigate and report such crimes, experts said.
Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke to lawyers from Asia and America about the Georgia spa shootings in a video call that lasted about 45 minutes Wednesday, according to attendees.
Garland, who was confirmed for the job last week, was outraged at the pain and anger advocates expressed, said John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, and “made it clear how serious it is they took this problem “. However, it did not offer any specific guidelines or strategies that the department would follow, participants said.
On Capitol Hill, Meng and Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, passed laws last week requiring the Justice Department to appoint an officer to oversee a review of all hate crimes reported during the pandemic, among other things.
Psaki said Thursday that Biden supports the goals of the legislation.
Some conservatives have warned of a rush for a verdict in the Georgia shootings or other high profile cases involving Asian American victims. At the hearing in the House of Representatives, Charles Fain Lehman, an official at the conservative Manhattan Institute, condemned racial attacks but said violence against Asian Americans was to be expected across the country amid the surge in violent crime last year.
Democrats at the hearing aired a video report of an Asian-American family, including a 2-year-old girl who was attacked in a grocery store in Texas last year in what federal authorities identified as a hate crime related to anger over the coronavirus.
Democrats and Witnesses were outraged at the comments made by Baker, the Cherokee County’s sheriff’s spokesman, who had minimized the gravity of the crime and eliminated its likely origins.
“Get your heads off the sand,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.).
Daniel Dae Kim, an Asian-American actor who testified at the hearing, also denied Baker’s description of the murders.
“These were places that were associated with Asians,” said Kim. “If this were a synagogue or a black church and someone shot these places, would we really wonder if this is a hate crime or not?”
The FBI has stated that it is in close coordination with local and state investigators and is ready to investigate if there is evidence of a violation of federal civil rights.
In a Thursday interview with NPR, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray called the shooting “a heartbreaking incident” but said that “it doesn’t appear” to be “racially motivated”. However, he stressed that he would submit to state and local officials.
These officials offered little new information about their investigation on Thursday. Two days after the murders, authorities released only the names of the four people killed in Cherokee County. The four killed in Atlanta had not been named.
“As soon as we’re 100 percent ready and get notifications, it’ll be released,” said Atlanta deputy chief Hampton, near the end of an eight-minute press conference.
He would not comment on a question about the citizenship status of the victims, or whether they had a family in the region or in the country.
Cherokee County authorities announced their four names Wednesday: Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54. A fifth Cherokee County victim, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, survived.
Authorities have said that Long may have visited the spas he previously targeted and that he has set out to eliminate a “temptation”.
However, experts said Thursday that even if that were a motive, the possibility of racism, xenophobia, misogyny or other prejudices as main factors cannot be ruled out. And it shouldn’t prevent prosecutors from bringing hate crime charges if the evidence leads.
“You can have mixed motives” and still be prosecuted for a hate crime, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “The public prosecutor does not have to prove that there were no other motives, but that at least one of the motives was disadvantageous.”
Hannah Knowles, Devlin Barrett, Jonathan Krohn, John Wagner, Mark Berman, and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.