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Prosecutor to seek hate-crime charges against White man accused in Atlanta-area spa killings

A small floral memorial outside Young's Asian Massage in Acworth, Ga. (Bita Honarvar/Reuters)

Prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty and hate-crime charges against the White man accused of fatally shooting eight people — mostly Asian women — in a March rampage across Atlanta-area spas that authorities are calling domestic terrorism.

Robert Aaron Long, 22, was indicted on murder charges Tuesday by grand juries in Fulton County and Cherokee County, where authorities say Long fired on employees and customers at three Asian-run businesses. Fulton County prosecutors said Tuesday that Long targeted his Atlanta victims because of their race and gender, while Cherokee County authorities said they are still deciding whether to pursue hate-crime charges and have not announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

The March 16 attack raised fears of racist targeting nationwide amid a spate of widely publicized attacks on Asian Americans. It was quickly seen as a high-profile test of Georgia’s new hate-crime law, passed last year in the wake of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery — a 25-year-old Black man chased by White men who now face federal hate-crime charges.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said Tuesday that she believes her office will be the first to use Georgia’s new law on bigoted attacks and that her charging decisions “send a message that everyone within this community is valued.”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on May 11 said she intended to seek hate crime charges and the death penalty against Robert Aaron Long, (Video: AP)

“Last year, I told the voters of Fulton County that I could not imagine a circumstance where I would seek [the death penalty],” Willis acknowledged at a news conference. “And at that time, I did not. Unfortunately, a case has arisen in the first few months of my term that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty.”

In Fulton County, Long is accused of killing Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63. In Cherokee County, his alleged victims are Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33.; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and a fifth person who was wounded.

Staff at the firm of J. Daran Burns, who represents Long, said Tuesday afternoon that Burns did not immediately have any comment. A lawyer with the Office of the Capital Defender in Atlanta also declined to comment Tuesday.

Though state law mandates that Georgians convicted of felony hate crimes have at least two years added to their sentence, Georgia’s hate-crime law will not affect Long’s potential penalties given the seriousness of his charges. Proponents of hate-crime laws have argued that they can signal authorities take hateful attacks seriously and reassure targeted communities.

For Long to be convicted of a hate crime, a jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant chose a victim, group of victims or their property because of characteristics such as race, religion, national origin and gender. Almost every state has a hate-crime law, but the statutes are rarely used, experts say. The Atlanta spa shootings fueled calls to seek enhanced penalties and new momentum for hate-crime laws in the few states without them.

Congress last month passed legislation meant to boost investigation of bias-based crimes against Asian Americans, as polling revealed pervasive fears of targeted violence during the pandemic.

Willis said Tuesday that her office wants to signal that “Lady Justice in this community is blind” and that “it does not matter your ethnicity, it does not matter what side of the tracks you come from.”

Willis declined to go into details of her case beyond court filings but said she is “comfortable” in her office’s decisions.

Officials said Long began his rampage at Young’s Asian Massage north of Atlanta, before heading to two other businesses across the street from each other, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa. He was apprehended that night following a manhunt, aided by cooperation from his parents. Authorities said Long confessed to the killings and may have planned to carry out more violence.

Early on after the spa shootings, law enforcement officials in Cherokee County faced a backlash over comments that many saw as downplaying the potential role of race in the shootings, which coincided with heightened attention to anti-Asian racism amid scapegoating for the coronavirus pandemic. A county sheriff’s office official, Jay Baker, said the day after the attack that Long had claimed to have a “sexual addiction” and said he wanted to eliminate a “temptation.”

“He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did,” Baker said. The framing early on in authorities’ investigations drew an outcry from those who saw the attack as inseparable from the race and gender of its victims.

“The shooter said it wasn’t racially motivated, but on the other hand, he’s going specifically to these spas where Asian women work precisely to serve the sexual fantasies of White males,” David Palumbo-Liu, a Stanford University professor and author of “Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier,” previously told The Washington Post. “So to disentangle them is really to do a disservice to the fact that these things are so linked together.”

Atlanta police said Long frequented the two businesses targeted in the city, but they refrained from discussing potential motives as they worked on the case.

“Whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that the majority of the victims were Asian,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said in March. “We also know that this is an issue that is happening across the country. It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.”

Long was indicted in Fulton County on charges including murder, domestic terrorism and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The indictment names a fifth victim, Isis Escobar, whom Long is accused of pointing a handgun toward on March 16.

Elaborating on the domestic terrorism charge, the indictment says Long’s crimes involved “the intent to cause serious bodily harm and to kill individuals and groups of individuals, and with the intent to intimidate the civilian population.”

A Cherokee County grand jury also indicted Long on charges including murder and aggravated assault, based on what District Attorney Shannon Wallace called a “comprehensive investigation.” A spokeswoman for Wallace’s office, Cyndi B. Crossland, said that a decision about pursuing the death penalty will be announced before Long’s arraignment, which has yet to be scheduled.

Mark Berman contributed to this report.

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