Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

After a black student said he was repeatedly punched and called the N-word by a group of students, some are questioning why the arrested white student has not been charged with a hate crime.

September 19, 2017

Was the Reported Collegetown Beating of a Black Cornell Student a Hate Crime?

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In the days after Ithaca Police arrested a Cornell student for misdemeanor assault following a black student’s report that he was assaulted and called the N-word in Collegetown on Friday night, many students have questioned why the arrested student has not been charged with a hate crime.

The arrested student is 19 years old and white, The New York Times reported. The student who said he was assaulted, who spoke to The Sun on the condition of anonymity, is black and is a junior at the University. He said he was called the N-word multiple times and then punched in the head by a group of four or five white men.

“As soon as I read this — as soon as I heard about it — I knew it was a hate crime,” Delmar Fears ’19, co-chair of Black Students United, told The Sun on Monday evening.

To be sure, Ithaca Police are still investigating potential additional charges.

“We’re exploring all avenues of what led up to the incident itself and what prompted it,” Officer Jamie Williamson told The Sun on Monday. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said police are “reviewing the evidence that they have against the statutes that they have for a hate crime.”

The difference between a hate crime and a non-hate crime under New York law comes down to a pivotal question: What was the perpetrator’s motive? If the crime was motivated by a “belief or perception regarding the race” of the victim or another person, then it is a hate crime under state law.

That distinction is one weighing heavily on a Cornell community waiting to see what will happen to the arrested student, who has not yet been identified as of Monday night.

One Cornell Law professor and former Supreme Court clerk told The Sun that she believes, from reports of the incident, that charging the perpetrator with a hate crime would be appropriate.

“My initial impression of the Cornell assault is that it was motivated by the race of the victim and that it therefore does qualify as a hate crime under New York law,” Prof. Sherry Colb, who has taught criminal law, said in an email.

But the assailant’s use of the N-word alone is not sufficient to constitute a hate crime, Colb explained. Proving the motive — not just the existence of hateful speech — is key, she said.

“Calling a person a racial slur before assaulting him would be good evidence that a hate crime took place but is not itself necessarily a hate crime,” Colb said. What the slur does, in a legal context, is “provide evidence that the assault that followed was committed because of the perpetrator’s perception of the race of the victim, which is what makes it a hate crime.”

“The question is, is there a connection between the odious views that this person evidently has and his action at that time?” Timothy J. Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney, told The Washington Post regarding a possible hate crime charge against the man who plowed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Va. in August.

“If you’re a racist and you kill someone, that doesn’t mean it’s a hate crime,” Heaphy told The Post. “There has to be an explicit connection between the two for it to be a civil rights offense.”

To be convicted of a hate crime in New York, a person must commit an offense “in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, [etc.] of a person,” according to the state’s Hate Crimes Act of 2000.

When that condition is met, the level of the underlying offense is elevated. In the case of the reported Collegetown assault, the current misdemeanor charge would become a Class E felony if police deem it a hate crime. Class E felonies generally carry no minimum jail sentence and a maximum of four years for someone with no criminal history.

Federal law also includes a hate crime statute, but the U.S. government only prosecutes violators of the law in select circumstances, such as when a state’s prosecution “left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence,” according to federal code.

Between 2011 and 2015, there were 13 reported hate crimes in Tompkins County, six reported by the Cornell Police Department and five reported by the Ithaca Police Department, according to New York state hate crime statistics.

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed reporting to this article.