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New York authorities file hate-crime charges in attack on Asian American woman

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance speaks at a news conference Wednesday about the brutal Monday attack on elderly Asian American Vilma Kari in Midtown.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance speaks at a news conference Wednesday about the brutal Monday attack on elderly Asian American Vilma Kari in Midtown. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
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NEW YORK — Local authorities said Wednesday they have filed three felony hate-crime charges against 38-year-old Brandon Elliot in the brutal stomping of an elderly Asian American woman — a case that could test the efficacy of such statutes amid a national groundswell of concern over rising anti-Asian attacks.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said Elliot — a homeless Black man on parole after serving 17 years in prison for killing his mother — told 65-year-old Vilma Kari “you don’t belong here” before launching the unprovoked attack in Midtown on Monday. Elliot faces two counts of second-degree assault and one count of attempted first-degree assault that could carry a maximum sentence of 25 years, as well as other punishments for violating his parole, authorities said.

The beating was captured on lobby surveillance video from a condominium, which showed several onlookers failing to respond to Kari’s distress. One closed the lobby door as she lay just outside on the pavement.

“This brave woman belongs here. Asian American New Yorkers belong here. Everyone belongs here,” Vance said at a news conference. “Attacks against Asian American New Yorkers are attacks against all New Yorkers. Our office stands against hate in all its forms.”

The assault caused widespread outrage as another in a rash of high-profile attacks on people of Asian descent, including the mass shooting in Atlanta that left six female Asian workers and two others dead in March, and the fatal assault, also captured on video, of an elderly Thai immigrant in San Francisco in February. The alleged assailants in those cases have not been charged with hate crimes, illustrating the complexities surrounding how such cases are handled.

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Vance and New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea hailed the quick work of the police department’s hate-crimes investigative unit in Elliot’s case, saying it demonstrated the commitment of the city’s law enforcement leadership to stopping such attacks. Vance said his office has prosecuted four hate-crime cases and is actively investigating four others in the first three months of this year, after having brought nine cases in all of 2020.

“Let me reiterate that we will never accept or tolerate hate or violence of any kind in our great city,” Shea said. “It goes against every fiber of who we are.”

The Midtown case was one of two attacks on Asian Americans in New York that were caught on video and publicized Monday, the other involving an Asian man who was choked and left unconscious in an altercation with a man on a subway car.

The charges against Elliot came a day after the Biden administration announced steps to respond to mounting pressure from Asian American leaders, including an expedited 30-day internal review at the Justice Department aimed at bolstering the federal agency’s tracking and prosecutions of hate crimes and bias incidents. Other measures included reinstating a White House initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and allocating nearly $50 million in new grants at the Department of Health and Human Services to assist survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault with new AAPI outreach.

Yet some Asian American leaders, while praising officials for seeking to hold perpetrators accountable, cautioned that the Elliot case highlights the complicated nature of hate-crime attacks and said the quick legal charges should not be viewed as a panacea in dealing with the accounts of increasing racism and xenophobia.

“I will say, and I do say to community leaders whether they like it or not, that even if we lock up every perpetrator and charge them with hate crimes it will not solve the problem,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who had decried the attack as an example of Asian Americans being treated as “subhuman.”

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Meng said she was pleased that attention and resources are moving toward developing a response to the issue of racism directed at Asian Americans. And she and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), have introduced the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act that would require the Justice Department to appoint an official to conduct an expedited review of every incident reported to federal hate-crime portals, as well as bolster data collection and public education campaigns around the coronavirus.

“Every case is different, this is a complicated problem, and the solution won’t be a simple solution,” Meng said. “In this case, the attack was caught on video with the added layer of bystanders seeing it and doing nothing. This really evoked a lot of emotions in people. People in general seem content that he was caught and charged with a hate crime, but let’s not pretend that these charges are going to eliminate cases and incidents going forward.”

Elliot has a long, troubled personal history, having pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 2002 stabbing death of his mother in the Bronx. Police said Elliot, then 19, stabbed her three times in the heart with a kitchen knife. His sentence was 15 years to life.

The maximum penalty for most killings in New York is 25 years to life. The reduced sentence was part of a plea deal, according to Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokeswoman for the Bronx district attorney. “The victim’s sister accepted the plea,” O’Shaughnessy added.

Elliot was denied parole twice before being granted his release after a Sept. 17, 2019, hearing.

It was not immediately clear how the New York parole board reached its decision. Elliot left the Fishkill Correctional Facility less than two months after the proceeding, and he has been reporting to his parole officer as instructed, a person familiar with his situation said.

The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the events, also said he has been present for frequent visits to his residence at a hotel for the homeless.

Elliot was ordered held without bail at his arraignment Wednesday night by the criminal court judge on duty. Prosecutor Courtney Razner said Elliot is charged with “a heinous and unprovoked hate crime” occurring at 11:40 a.m. Monday.

Kari, whose name was not mentioned at the proceeding, was randomly approached by Elliot who cursed, “told her she didn’t belong here, called her an Asian-something that she couldn’t hear” and then assaulted her in an act caught on video, Razner said.

Kari was in the hospital for a day, having sustained a fractured pelvis “and contusions to her head and body,” according to the prosecutor, who said Elliot was wearing the same clothing both during the attack and at the time of arrest.

Legal Aid Society lawyers representing Elliot reserved their bail argument at the court appearance. The organization released a statement asking the public “to reserve judgment until all the facts are presented in court.”

“As with every client we represent, he will have unfettered access to our legal resources and expertise,” the statement said. “We are fully reviewing this case and will have additional comments in the coming days and weeks.”

“Obviously, we need to stop these types of incidents of violence,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action civil rights group. “The question for the Asian American community and the movement in the wake of the Biden administration’s action is, ‘Where do we put our efforts right now?’ I think there has been an overemphasis on, ‘Is this a hate crime or is this not a hate crime?’ It speaks to the racial trauma that for a century and more there has been a sense we have not had justice.”

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Yet even as specific, high-profile cases draw attention to the threats facing the Asian American community, Choi added, they “don’t necessarily draw on the fact that we need a much more comprehensive approach.

“It might make folks seem in the moment like justice has been served, and I think there should be accountability,” she said. “But there should be a way to address the fact that this is a person who had a history of killing people, of hurting people, so the broader question is, ‘What can allow this to happen in the first place?’ ”

In recent weeks, Asian Americans in New York have reported being punched in subway cars, spit on and pummeled with metal pipes — an ugly echo of a national trend that activists say gained traction as President Donald Trump used racist terms to tie the coronavirus pandemic to China.

Monday’s attack happened just before noon in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, police said, as Kari was walking along West 43rd Street. Kari, who reportedly emigrated from the Philippines several decades ago, was headed to church, authorities said, when Elliot reportedly yelled, “F--- you, you don’t belong here!”

Police said Elliot kicked the woman in the stomach, knocking her to the sidewalk, then stomped on her head repeatedly. Video shows one man in the lobby watching the attack. That man, who appeared to be tying boxes onto a cart, stared as the woman was kicked but made no move to assist her.

Two other men, who according to news accounts were security guards, then walked toward the entrance as the assailant left and closed the door on the victim. The owner of the building said it had suspended staff members who witnessed the attack.

The woman “sustained a serious physical injury,” police said, and was taken to NYU Langone Hospital, where she was in stable condition.

At the news conference, Vance called on the public to continue to report attacks to authorities. Yet in an online forum Wednesday hosted by the New York Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, attorney Daniel Gotlin told community members that it is not always clear whether a case can be handled under New York’s special hate-crimes designation, which can lead to more severe sentences.

Gotlin said that without an acknowledgment that bias is a motive, an act of violence against an Asian American victim or another member of a protected class may not ultimately register as a hateful act under the law. In Elliot’s case, his alleged remarks presumably will be used against him as the district attorney seeks elevated charges, the attorney said.

“If they make one of those comments,” Gotlin said, “it makes life a lot easier for the prosecutor who charges people with these crimes to determine if it’s a hate crime.”

Nakamura and Elfrink reported from Washington.