The increase was welcomed by local officials and activists, who criticized the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, after The Post revealed this summer that hate-crime prosecutions had fallen to record lows while hate-crime reports were at record highs.
“I’m heartened to see that they are prosecuting more hate crimes,” said Stephania Mahdi of the DC Anti-Violence Project. “I hope it continues.”
The uptick comes as momentum builds to strengthen the city’s hate-crime law, which Liu has said is too vague.
But activists and elected officials also warn that they have yet to see the transparency promised by Liu. And the increase in hate-crime prosecutions could be overshadowed by another rise in suspected hate crimes in the capital in 2019. The District already had the highest per capita rate of any major U.S. city.
“It’s underwhelming to try to celebrate an increase of a handful of cases being prosecuted as hate crimes when we are seeing this dramatic increase,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment because it is still compiling its own statistics for 2019, a spokeswoman said. At a community forum this summer, Liu said she had hired additional personnel to focus on hate crimes.
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 Donald Trump won just 4 percent of the vote, advocates said.
Of the record 113 cases referred by D.C. police as suspected hate crimes in 2017 and 2018, the U.S. attorney’s office only charged five as bias-related crimes, The Post found. None of the five has resulted in a hate-crime conviction. One case was dropped completely, while three others ended in convictions but not for hate crimes. The fifth case is scheduled for trial in 2020.
Prosecutors have taken a more aggressive approach in 2019, especially since The Post’s investigation was published in August. Five of the seven cases from 2019 were filed as hate crimes since then, according to D.C. Superior Court records.
Liu’s office also charged two older cases — one from 2017 and another from 2018 — as hate crimes this year.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney denied any connection between the increase in hate-crime prosecutions and The Post’s findings. “We make charging decisions as justified by the facts and the law, without regard to how those decisions may be portrayed in the media,” she said.
Prosecutors could charge more 2019 incidents as hate crimes in the months to come.
The seven hate-crime cases prosecuted from 2019 reflect an array of bigotries.
In July, a white homeless man and sidewalk repair “vigilante” allegedly attacked two Hispanic men, shouting: “Go back to where you are from!”
A month later, a man allegedly called a liquor store employee a terrorist and threatened to blow up the shop.
And in November, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico allegedly carved a swastika into the door of the historic Sixth and I synagogue.
All three suspects have pleaded not guilty.
In two of the cases, however, the hate-crime enhancements were dropped in exchange for the defendants pleading guilty to misdemeanors. A third case, in which a man allegedly threatened to kill a transgender woman, is ongoing.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city’s congressional representative, called the increase in hate-crime prosecutions “good news.” But she said it did not absolve Liu and underscores the need for the nation’s capital to have its own elected prosecutor, something she has been pushing for in Congress for more than decade.
“The one thing people want when it comes to local crime is someone who is responsive to them,” she said, adding that Liu was “responsive to nobody.”
When the D.C. Council held a committee hearing on the decline in hate-crime prosecutions in October, Liu did not appear. Instead, she sent a statement less than an hour before accusing the Judiciary and Public Safety committee of making up its mind “before a full and fair consideration of the facts.”
In a letter sent at the same time, Liu defended her record by saying that most suspected hate crimes referred to her office had been prosecuted — just not as hate crimes.
Citing a recent trial in which a jury convicted a defendant of felony assault but deadlocked on a hate enhancement, Liu called the jury instructions for hate crimes “a potential source of confusion.” She has suggested that the D.C. Council may need to change the city’s hate-crime law to eliminate the confusion.
Allen, who heads the judiciary committee, said the hearing was the first time Liu’s office had indicated any concerns about jury instructions for hate crimes.
“Raising that as an issue seemed a bit odd and deflective,” he said, noting that the U.S. attorney’s office is part of a group of organizations that writes the jury instructions.
Richard Gilbert of the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which is also part of the group, said jury instructions could not be clarified until the law is clarified — either by the council or the D.C. Court of Appeals, which is considering a case on the issue.
Allen said he was open to revising the law, which allows judges to sentence hate-crime offenders to up to 50 percent more time, but doing so would require greater cooperation from Liu’s office.
“We need to work to solve these problems to make sure every neighborhood and every neighbor feels safe, and that means we have to be able to sit at the same table,” Allen said. “Having the U.S. attorney’s office not feeling obligated, not feeling a part of the District’s efforts, is problematic.”
Norton and Mahdi said they, too, are in favor of the council revising the law to allow for clearer jury instructions in hate-crime trials.
Prosecutors need to utilize the city’s hate-crime law whenever possible to show vulnerable communities that they are valued and protected, Mahdi said.
An official from Liu’s office — who would not speak unless she was granted anonymity — said prosecutors had not been keeping statistics on hate-crime prosecutions. Now the office is compiling them as part of a broader inquiry into why hate-crime prosecutions had fallen.
The Post’s investigation was “enlightening” and “shocking,” she said.
“You hear the phrase, ‘A watched pot never boils,’ ” she added. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, the pot is boiling over.’ ”