When Buford O. Furrow Jr. confessed to shooting several Jewish children, he reportedly told law-enforcement officials that he wanted to send "a wake up call to America to kill Jews." He has been charged with six "hate crimes," which makes him eligible for the death penalty under California law. What is a hate crime?
Like many legal terms, "hate crime" does not mean what it seems to. If you kill your mother-in-law because you hate her, that is not a hate crime. Hate crimes are crimes motivated by racial, religious, gender, or other prejudice. Hate crime laws generally impose tougher punishments when crimes such as rape, arson, assault, intimidation, and damage of property are motivated by bias. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws. The definition of a hate crime varies. Twenty-one states include mental and physical disability in their lists. Twenty-two states include sexual orientation. Three states and the District of Columbia impose tougher penalties for crimes based on political affiliation.
Some states require that bias-motivation be a substantial factor in a crime; others require it to be the sole factor. The federal Hate Crimes Sentence Enhancement Act of 1994 increases maximum sentences for crimes committed because the victim was engaged in activities such as attending public school. In 1996 Congress made it a federal crime to burn a house of worship. If passed, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 would increase the federal role in prosecuting hate crimes.
Some scholars believe hate crime laws are unwise or even unconstitutional. They argue that criminals should be punished for their crimes, not for their motives, and that making a particular belief--even a repugnant one--a factor in sentencing violates the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court unanimously rejected this argument in 1993.