Hate crime reports have soared in D.C. Prosecutions have plummeted.

Ashly Taylor was shot for being a lesbian. Then she watched as the hatred that fueled the attack was ignored in court.

Ashly Taylor shows her scars. She was shot in the chest last year at a D.C. construction site by a man who derided her for being a lesbian. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The hatred that day couldn't have been clearer to Ashly Taylor.

Ashly Taylor shows her scars. She was shot in the chest last year at a D.C. construction site by a man who derided her for being a lesbian. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

She had endured it ever since coming out as a teenager, when strangers said lewd things to her for holding another girl’s hand and one of her own relatives called her a “dyke.” Yet the 27-year-old had never encountered a problem on the construction sites she’d worked since high school, where she was just another laborer in baggy clothes and a hard hat, until a chilly February afternoon in 2018.

She had been sitting in the back of a pickup truck in Southeast Washington during a break from digging a ditch when a new hire sauntered up and began harassing her for being a lesbian.

“Why you dress like you’re a boy?” demanded Enjoli Gaffney, a felon who had been released from prison seven months earlier. Then he launched into a lurid tirade that ended, according to court records, with him vowing to have sex with her and ordering her to climb out of the truck so he could kiss her.

When Taylor got out to confront him, court documents show, Gaffney pulled a small silver and black pistol from his waistband and pointed it at her chest.

Then he pulled the trigger.

Taylor loved the physical labor of construction work, but after being shot, she is too afraid to return to it. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Hate crimes are surging across the country, with racist slurs scrawled on schools and houses of worship, assaults on gay and transgender people, and white gunmen targeting Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue and Latinos at an El Paso Walmart.

In Washington, the number of attacks investigated by police as bias-motivated reached an all-time high of 204 last year. The District had the highest per capita hate-crime rate of any major city in the country, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

Yet hate-crime prosecutions in the nation’s capital have plummeted, even as the number of people arrested on those charges — including Taylor’s attacker — has soared, The Washington Post found.

Last year, police made arrests in a record 59 hate-crime cases involving adults. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which handles most criminal cases in the capital, prosecuted only three as hate crimes, and one was quickly dropped.

About this series

As hate crimes soar across the country, The Post examines those who commit acts of hatred, those who are targets of attacks, and those who investigate and prosecute them.

He always hated women. Then he decided to kill them.

A black principal, four white teens and the ‘senior prank’ that became a hate crime

D.C. hate crimes: Inside a record year of hatred in the nation’s capital

Of the 178 suspected hate crimes in 2017, police closed 54 cases involving adults by arrest. Prosecutors charged two cases as hate crimes, and both were later dropped as part of plea deals.

The Post’s months-long analysis of more than 200,000 D.C. police and court records found that hate-crime prosecutions and convictions are at their lowest point in at least a decade.

Jessie K. Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District, took office two years ago promising local activists that “as a woman of color,” she took hate crimes very seriously. Liu declined multiple requests for an interview to explain why prosecutions have fallen so low. Instead, she released a statement Tuesday defending her record, saying “we provide every potential case with a hate crimes enhancement with the careful attention and commitment it deserves.”

At a community meeting last month, she acknowledged the growing gap between hate-crime arrests and prosecutions in the District, without revealing just how large it has grown.

“The fact that there are more reported hate-bias crimes has definitely not gone unnoticed in our office,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about it in recent weeks, thinking about how we can revamp our efforts and resources to address it.”

She said she had recently added a second hate-crimes coordinator to ensure cases were prosecuted appropriately.

U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu, shown in 2018, acknowledged at a public meeting in July the growing gap between hate-crime arrests and prosecutions in the District. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Activists, legal experts and prosecutors, including two of Liu’s predecessors, said they were troubled by The Post’s findings.

“Wow,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., who served as U.S. attorney for five years under President Barack Obama, when told of the numbers. “We were really aggressive on these cases. Hate crimes really tear at the fabric of our democracy.”

But Machen also noted it can be difficult to prove that a crime was committed because of hatred. And prosecutors worry, he said, that bringing hate-crime charges can make cases harder to win.

Others said prosecutorial caution isn’t a new phenomenon and cannot explain the drop.

“This is a red flag,” said David Friedman, the Anti-Defamation League’s vice president of law enforcement and community security, who helped create the District’s hate-crime law 30 years ago. “When you have that high of a number of referrals, and you do not have hate-crime prosecutions, you have to be concerned about the statement that makes.”

Ruby Corado, a prominent Washington advocate for LGBTQ rights, and other activists argue that what’s happening reflects the priorities of President Trump, who appointed Liu and has rolled back rights and protections for minorities, especially the LGBTQ community.

David Friedman of the Anti-Defamation League helped create the District’s hate-crime law 30 years ago. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The District is the only place in the country where local crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office, whose leader is appointed by the president. The setup makes it hard to hold prosecutors accountable, especially in a city where Trump won just 4 percent of the vote, advocates said.

“There is a disconnect between the people who experience these hate crimes and the people who are in charge of prosecuting them,” Corado said. That has created what she called a “culture of impunity,” in which bigots are emboldened and victims are left feeling “disposable.”

For Ashly Taylor, a bullet to the chest was just the beginning of her ordeal. She would survive the Feb. 2, 2018, shooting, only to watch as the evident hatred that left a scar above her heart was ignored in court.

As hate crime reports have climbed in Washington, D.C., federal prosecutors have brought hate crime charges in fewer cases.

204 reports

200

150

100

3 cases

charged as

hate crimes

50

0

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

As hate crime reports have climbed in Washington, D.C., federal prosecutors have brought hate crime charges in fewer cases.

204 reports

200

150

100

3 cases

charged as

hate crimes

50

0

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

As hate crime reports have climbed in Washington, D.C., federal prosecutors have brought hate crime charges in fewer cases.

204

reports

150

100

50

3 cases

charged as

hate crimes

0

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

As hate crime reports have climbed in Washington, D.C., federal prosecutors have brought hate crime charges in fewer cases.

204 hate

crimes

reported

150

100

50

3 cases

charged as

hate crimes

0

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Note: The Post categorized cases by the year in which they occurred.

Source: A Post analysis of data from the D.C. Police Department and the Superior Court of D.C.

The drop in hate-crime prosecutions in the nation's capital stands in stark contrast to other cities. In Los Angeles, Seattle and the Brooklyn borough of New York City, hate-crime prosecutions have risen along with hate-crime arrests.

In San Diego County, Calif., for example, when police doubled the number of hate-crime cases referred to the district attorney’s office to 51 last year, hate-crime prosecutions rose even more sharply to 30.

Leonard Trinh, a deputy district attorney in San Diego County who specializes in bigotry-fueled crimes, said his office recently hired a second person to help him keep pace with the increasing number of hate-crime arrests.

“If the evidence is there, we should be charging” cases as hate crimes, said Trinh, whose Vietnamese family was the victim of a hate crime when he was growing up in Washington state.

D.C.’s numbers seem “really low,” he said, especially given that its statute protects more groups than California’s hate-crime law.

Mike Hogan, a hate-crimes prosecutor in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, echoed that assessment.

“If you have a whole bunch of referrals with identified suspects, and you aren’t filing a lot of cases, you’d have to look closely to see if you were following best practices,” said Hogan, who helped persuade the state to amend its hate-crime law in the 1980s after he and a friend were targeted for being gay.

In Washington, D.C., the gap between hate crime reports and hate crime charges stands out among other large cities.

Washington, D.C.

204 cases

reported

200

3 cases

charged

2015

2018

King County, Wash.

(Seattle)

125

30

2015

2018

San Francisco

70

23

2015

2018

Kings County, N.Y.

(Brooklyn)

127

35

2015

2018

Cases in D.C. and San Francisco may include more than one defendant. In Brooklyn and Seattle, each case refers to an individual arrested or charged. Data for Seattle refer to cases of malicious harassment, Washington state's equivalent of a hate crime.

In Washington, D.C., the gap between hate crime reports and hate crime charges stands out among other large cities.

Washington, D.C.

San Francisco

204 hate

crime reports

200

70

3 cases charged

as hate crimes

23

2015

2018

2015

2018

King County, Wash.

(Seattle)

Kings County, N.Y.

(Brooklyn)

127

125

35

30

2015

2018

2015

2018

Cases in D.C. and San Francisco may include more than one defendant. In Brooklyn and Seattle,

each case refers to an individual arrested or charged. Data for Seattle refer to cases of malicious

harassment, Washington state's equivalent of a hate crime.

Note: The Post categorized cases by the year in which they occurred.

Source: D.C. Superior Court and the Metropolitan Police Department, San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the California Dept. of Justice, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Seattle Police Department, Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, the New York City Police Department and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services

The District’s Bias-Related Crime Act was enacted in 1989 at a time when fear over the AIDS epidemic had led to violent assaults on gay people. The D.C. Council passed the law after three teenagers attacked a gay man with baseball bats near Rock Creek Park.

The act allows judges to enhance sentences by up to 50 percent for crimes committed based on a victim’s race, religion, age, ethnicity or national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or political affiliation, among other categories. (Homelessness would be added in 2009.)

But for a long time, the law was not enforced. In 1994, D.C. police reported only two hate crimes.

“We were getting calls from people who believed they were victims of hate crimes,” recalled Friedman, the ADL’s Washington regional director at the time. “But when they tried reporting it” to the Metropolitan Police Department, “MPD was blowing them off.”

In 1998, the department created a Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit to foster communication between police and the gay community. Reports of suspected hate crimes started to rise, then skyrocketed after Trump’s election.

The District is now one of the nation’s most active police departments in identifying potential hate crimes, and experts say dedicated policing is probably part of the reason the city’s numbers are so high. When officers detect bias while investigating an incident, they are required to call in a supervisor and, in the case of a crime, a detective. A notification is sent to the Special Liaison Branch, whose ranks include gay, transgender and minority officers. Each month, a six-member committee reviews suspected hate crimes, and the department keeps a list of confirmed cases on its website. (The Post sometimes classified the type of suspected hate crime differently than police, and counted the incidents by the year in which they occurred.)

“We are way ahead of the curve,” said Lt. Brett Parson, commander of the Special Liaison Branch, which includes the now-renamed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit.

Lt. Brett Parson speaks at a Hate-Bias Task Force meeting on July 24. He oversees the department’s Special Liaison Branch, which includes the LGBT Liaison Unit. (Michael E. Miller/The Washington Post)

Nearly half the District’s suspected hate crimes in 2018 targeted people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Ashly Taylor was one of them.

When she was shot, she fell backward against the pickup truck’s trailer. As blood began to soak through her sports bra, Taylor said, she wondered whether she was going to die.

But then, to her own surprise as much as her attacker’s, she got up. As Taylor grabbed a two-by-four to defend herself, co-workers wrestled the gun out of Gaffney’s hands.

“He was trying to shoot me [again] in the head,” she recalled.

After Gaffney ran away, Taylor managed to drive herself to a hospital, where doctors found that the bullet had torn through five layers of clothing, pierced her chest, bounced off her ribs and then sliced sideways across her skin. She was treated and released. Then she got back in her car and drove to a police station.

“The complainant walked into the Fifth District Station and reported that she had been shot in the chest by her coworker,” Gaffney’s arrest warrant begins.

The shooting happened in broad daylight along a busy avenue, but the only public mention was a brief online statement by police that they were “investigating this offense as being motivated by hate or bias.”

It would be the last time those words were used in her case.

People crowd along 17th Street during the 2018 Capital Pride Parade in Northwest Washington. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

For two weeks, Taylor lay in bed as her girlfriend tended to her gunshot wound, which had become infected.

But the injury festered in other ways. Even after the pain subsided, she could no longer sleep on her chest. In fact, she could hardly sleep at all. She woke up at the slightest touch, sweating from nightmares of Gaffney smiling and squeezing the trigger.

A therapist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, but her insurance wouldn’t cover psychiatric care, Taylor said. She began drinking more, staying inside the couple’s apartment in Hyattsville, Md., and refusing to return to her construction job.

“She didn’t want to be around anyone,” recalled her girlfriend, Briana Phillips. “She didn’t want to go outside.”

When Gaffney was arrested after 14 days, the couple hoped court proceedings would help close the wound.

Taylor was encouraged by her first meeting with Liu’s office, in which the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, Melissa Price, told her prosecutors planned to charge Gaffney with a hate crime, she recalled.

But when she met with Price about a month later, the message was very different.

“She said she had to drop the hate crime and give him a plea” deal, Taylor recalled.

Price did not respond to requests for comment. In her statement, Liu said she could not comment on specific cases.

The decision to drop the hate-crime charge enraged Taylor. Her father had served 10 years in prison for shooting someone, she said, so she expected Gaffney to get at least that much time for what she considered an attempted murder fueled by bigotry.

D.C. police seized this .38 revolver, with its serial number scratched out, from Enjoli Gaffney in 2015. (Metropolitan Police Department)

Gaffney has a long criminal record. He pleaded guilty to four felony drug-distribution charges in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Then, in 2015, a police officer caught him with a loaded .38 revolver, its serial number scratched out. He pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 30 months but released in less than 22, on June 13, 2017.

On May 9, 2018, Gaffney pleaded guilty once more — to assault with a dangerous weapon for the attack on Taylor. As part of the deal, she learned, he would serve 36 months in prison.

Taylor was so angry that she stormed out of the courtroom.

“I felt like it was bull crap,” she said. “The plea was bull crap. The whole system is bull crap.”

Over the past two years, an increasing number of victims of suspected hate crimes in the District have watched in frustration as their alleged attackers were arrested but never charged with a hate crime — or never charged at all.

The U.S. attorney’s office filed hate-crime charges in just four of the 113 bias-motivated cases it received from police for 2017 and 2018.

By contrast, prosecutors filed hate-crime charges in 44 of the roughly 100 cases they received from police between 2012 and 2015. They also filed hate-crime charges in seven additional cases that police did not flag as bias-motivated.

Liu, left, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and Police Chief Peter Newsham leave a news conference in February on strategies for reducing violent crime in the District. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The steep drop-off in hate-crime prosecutions in 2017 did not happen solely under Liu. By the time she took office that September, roughly one-third of the year’s bias-motivated cases had already been resolved without hate-crime charges by her predecessor, Channing D. Phillips.

Phillips, an Obama appointee who charged five cases from 2016 as hate crimes, said his office made decisions on a case-by-case basis and there was no policy shift or pressure to back off hate-crime prosecutions after Trump’s inauguration.

Days before leaving office, Phillips filed hate-crime charges in a case police had not flagged as bias-motivated, in which security guards and supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington on May 16, 2017.

The hate-crime charges were dropped against two supporters, both U.S. citizens, in exchange for pleading guilty to assault, but 15 Turkish security guards and two Canadian Erdogan supporters left the country before they could face trial.

The one case from 2017 that Liu charged as a hate crime was an assault on a Palestinian American teacher outside the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference. But the hate-crime charge against Yosef Steynovitz, a member of the militant Jewish Defense League, was dropped in exchange for his pleading guilty to three misdemeanors. He received a suspended sentence.

Liu’s office charged three incidents from 2018 as hate crimes. One case, in which a man allegedly called two women “dykes” before attacking them on the street, was dropped after three months because prosecutors were “not ready to proceed with this matter,” according to court records.

The two others attracted significant media attention. In one, a white cyclist called a black motorist the n-word before attacking him with a bicycle lock in Georgetown. In June, a jury convicted him of two felony assault charges but deadlocked on the hate-crime enhancement. In the other case, which is ongoing, a black man is accused of shouting racist threats at a Hispanic elementary school crossing guard in Chevy Chase.

“You lose credibility if you bring a [hate-crime] charge, and you can’t prove it,” said former U.S. attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., shown in 2013. (André Chung for The Washington Post)

Machen and Phillips were reluctant to criticize Liu without looking at the cases in detail.

“Charging a case as a hate crime can be a little tricky,” Phillips said. “You are increasing your burden of proof. Not only do you have to prove the underlying offense, such as an assault, but you have to prove that it was committed because of a bias.”

Sometimes, even racial epithets are not enough to prove a racist motive, Machen said. And prosecutors are duty-bound to bring only charges they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the District, juries normally vote once on a crime and then again on a hate enhancement. Nonetheless, the difficulty of proving hate was a motivation can endanger an entire case, Machen and Phillips said.

“You lose credibility if you bring a charge and you can’t prove it,” Machen said. “It does affect your overall credibility and can affect you on other parts of the case.”

Those fears appeared to play a role in a high-profile hate-crime trial earlier this year.

In February, two men went on trial in the fatal shooting of Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, a transgender woman who was killed during a 2016 armed robbery. But in the middle of the trial, Liu’s office reversed course, asking the judge to dismiss the hate-crime enhancement against one defendant. The judge then threw out the enhancement against the other man, too. The jury wound up acquitting the men of many charges and deadlocking on the murder charge, leading to a mistrial.

Prosecutors say they will retry the case next year, but not as a hate crime.

Liu and Bowser at the February news conference about the District’s spike in gun violence. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

An analysis of a decade of hate-crime cases calls into question prosecutors’ fears of jeopardizing cases with hate-crime enhancements. The Post found six cases from 2008 to 2017 in which juries considered a hate crime and failed to convict on any charge. In 16 other cases during the same period, juries either convicted the defendants of hate crimes or rejected the hate-crime enhancement but convicted on other charges.

Cases charged as hate crimes also are more likely to result in a conviction. More than 70 percent of the hate-crime prosecutions during that decade ended in some kind of conviction, and 41 percent ended in hate-crime convictions.

By contrast, prosecutors secured convictions in 29 percent of the suspected-bias cases they decided not to charge as hate crimes in 2017, the most recent year for which outcomes are available.

Of the 42 hate-crime convictions since 2008, however, only four resulted in defendants serving additional jail time, The Post found.

Phillips offered two possible reasons. Many misdemeanor hate crimes are committed by first-time offenders, he said, and judges are often reluctant to hand out stiff sentences to people with no previous criminal record. And in serious felony cases, he said, defendants already face steep sentences without hate enhancements.

Frederick M. Lawrence, an expert on hate crimes and a lecturer at Georgetown University Law School, said those numbers suggest the District should change its law to limit judges’ discretion in applying sentencing enhancements.

“If you get the conviction and then the judge doesn’t enhance the sentence, that is very problematic,” he said. “It is extremely important that law enforcement be seen as unequivocally on the side of identifying these crimes for what they are, prosecuting them for what they are and sentencing them for what they are.”

A D.C. police flier seeks information on the fatal shooting of Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, a transgender woman killed during an armed robbery in 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Corado, the LGBTQ rights advocate, agreed. Otherwise, she said, “it gives perpetrators a green light.”

Other activists lament that since Liu took office, meetings of the District’s Hate-Bias Task Force, which includes police, prosecutors and advocacy group leaders, have become less frequent and no longer include statistics or details on hate-crime prosecutions.

“It has been a source of frustration,” said Stephania Mahdi of the D.C. Anti-Violence Project.

Liu acknowledged as much at a meeting of the task force on July 24.

“We have not been as systematic as we could be about keeping data,” she said. “So we’re going to do that, and I’m pledging to you now that I’m going to review those at least once a month so I have a better understanding of what’s going on and how we’re handling these cases.”

In addition to adding the second hate-crimes coordinator, she said, she was considering asking the D.C. Council to simplify jury instructions for hate crimes, which her office blamed for several recent setbacks.

The meeting was the first Liu had attended in almost two years, activists said.

“I’m pledging to be a lot more engaged,” she said.

Ruby Corado, seated, in 2016 with current and former clients of Casa Ruby, an outreach center for the LGBTQ community she runs in Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

On a Tuesday morning in March, Enjoli Gaffney walked into D.C. Superior Court accompanied by a federal marshal and the soft rustle of metal chains. An orange jumpsuit hung loosely on his lanky frame as he craned his neck to look at the audience.

Ashly Taylor’s girlfriend, Briana Phillips, sat on the end of a bench near the back. But Taylor was missing.

After she stormed out of the courtroom over the plea agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office had assigned another prosecutor to the case who had tried to rescind the deal, Taylor said. She hoped Gaffney would be charged with a hate crime after all.

But 10 months later, he was back in court to be sentenced under the same agreement. She was too disgusted to attend.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” she said. “I think to myself, ‘What if I died? Then what would y’all charge him with?’ ”

In the courtroom, it fell to Phillips to recount the shooting’s toll. Taylor had become angry, guarded and paranoid, she told Judge Milton C. Lee.

“She is not the same person as before,” Phillips said wearily. “That’s something I have to live with every day.”

In her statement to the judge, Taylor’s aunt voiced indignation and resignation.

“The sentence they are asking for, I feel like it should be more,” Wanda Dickerson said. “But I also want this to be over with.”

When it was Gaffney’s turn to speak, the 40-year-old who had boasted that he was a “big man” moments before the shooting, according to court records, now had little to say.

“I wish I could have seen the sister here today,” he said of Taylor in a faint and faltering voice, “but the family has my deepest sympathies.”

Finally, it was time for the judge to deliver his sentence.

“You are one of the people, Mr. Gaffney, that makes it difficult for this city to grow,” Lee began before pointing out that Gaffney had spent much of his life in and out of prison.

He expressed frustration with the plea deal.

“I don’t know everything that went into this agreement,” Lee said. “I’m prepared to honor it, but I’ll say this: It’s not the right sentence. You deserve a whole lot more.”

The U.S. attorney’s office filed a handwritten statement from Taylor the day before Gaffney’s sentencing. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

The U.S. attorney’s office filed a handwritten statement from Taylor the day before Gaffney’s sentencing. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

In her own statement, written by hand and filed in court a day earlier, Taylor had left no doubt about how she felt.

“I think it is ridiculous and unfair that you can get a simple three years for almost taking someone’s life, just because I’m a proud lesbian woman,” she had written to Gaffney. “And your insecure, biased ways did not give you the right to target me.”

She has not returned to construction and the outdoor physical labor she enjoyed. She’d become too afraid that someone would attack her again.

Instead, she was sitting in front of a computer in a warehouse office when her phone rang after the sentencing.

The hearing was a “waste of time,” her girlfriend told her. The word “hate” hadn’t even come up.

michael.miller@washpost.com

steven.rich@washpost.com

Jennifer Jenkins and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

Michael E. Miller

Michael E. Miller is a reporter on the local enterprise team. He joined The Washington Post in 2015 and has also reported from Afghanistan.

Steven Rich

Steven Rich is the database editor for investigations at The Washington Post. While at The Post, he has worked on investigations involving the National Security Agency, police shootings, tax liens and civil forfeiture. He was a reporter on two teams to win Pulitzer Prizes, for public service in 2014 and national reporting in 2016.

About this story

Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Graphics by Joe Fox. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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