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Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Hawaii State Seal

Hate-crime sentencing
bill sparks emotional
committee debate

By Lisa Asato

Felons convicted of hate crimes would face sentences as much as double the current maximum amount, under a bill moving in the state Legislature.

Two dozen community groups, law-enforcement agencies and citizens were split in testimony yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Legislature Throughout the hearing, supporters invoked the names of recent hate-crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. Shepard as a gay college student who was beaten and left to die in a remote area in Wyoming; Byrd was a black man who was dragged to his death by a group of whites in Texas.

They also spoke of Kenneth Brewer, a gay Hawaii Kai businessman killed in 1997, whose assailant was convicted of third-degree assault and sentenced to one year in prison, the time already served.

State public defender Jack Tonaki disagreed.

"If the jury found this crime was hate motivated, I guarantee you (it) would have brought back" a harsher conviction, he said.

Tonaki, who opposed the bill, also argued that the bill would unfairly penalize those who, "in the heat of the moment," utter racial or other types of slurs, which have nothing to do with motivation

Hawaii is one of four states without specific hate-crimes legislation.

Senate Bill 951 defines hate crimes as those in which criminal offenders select victims because of hostilities toward their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.

The bill would apply only to felonies -- serious crimes that in general carry maximum sentences of five to 20 years.

The bill also would require the state to track hate-crime data.

Nationwide, 7,876 hate crimes occurred in 1999, according to the FBI's annual report Hate Crime Statistics. Of those crimes, racial bias accounted for 4,295; religion for 1,411; sexual orientation for 1,317; and disability for 19.

Hawaii and Alabama are the only two states that don't report hate-crime statistics to the bureau.

Bridgette Greenia said she opposed granting special protections for specific groups.

"The scariest thing about this legislation is that it is a steppingstone for furthering the gay cause," she said.

Kunti Bull, meanwhile, said there is "no real difference between murder motivated by hate and murder for any other reason."

Don't get "caught up in this politically correct nonsense," Bull warned.

But Holly Huber of the Civil Unions-Civil Rights Movement, which last month held an around-the-island march to call for equal rights for gays and lesbians, said: "These are not special rights. These are equal rights."

The committee approved the bill by a vote of 5-1. Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai) cast the dissenting vote.

Slom asked several proponents of the bill whether they would consider opponents of such legislation to be bigots.

They all answered "no."

A companion bill was to be heard today by the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

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