5 Black lawmakers want to reform Iowa's hate crime laws, after 'lynching' of Black man, whose body was found burning in a ditch

Iowa Democratic Party Chair and State Rep. Ross Wilburn said it is rare hate crime charges are filed in Iowa, and he and co-sponsors of a new bill seek changes amid "shameful" acts of bias.

Celebrate Black History Month. Black Health and Wellness is the theme this month

Iowa Democratic Party Chair and State Rep. Ross Wilburn said he was motivated to introduce hate crime bill, H.F. 2213 (H.S.B 722) in part, because of the “tragic” murder of Michael Williams, a Black man from Grinnell who was beaten, hanged and his body found burning in a ditch in 2020 — an act Williams’ family and activists call a “lynching.”

Wilburn said the bill must make it through the subcommittee and committee process this week to move forward for consideration during this legislative session. Wilburn, who discussed the bill during a recent meeting of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus, said he met with Williams’ family last year.

“I spoke with the father, and he said: ’There’s no way you can tell me, a Black man, that if anyone was lynched, my son was lynched — and that that’s not an act of hate.’”

Wilburn said Iowa’s current hate crime laws enhance penalties for certain crimes, compared to other states which make the criminal action itself a hate crime. Currently, if an Iowan was charged with arson in the second degree and it was considered a hate crime, the charge “would be bumped up to arson in the first degree,” Wilburn said, during the Black caucus meeting.

Steven Vogel was convicted of murder last December the death of Williams. Murder doesn’t qualify for penalty enhancement, because in Iowa, first-degree murder carries the highest possible punishment, which is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

According to the bill, a hate crime occurs when a public offense is committed against a person or a person’s property, or a person associated with someone, because of bias against a person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability.

Wilburn said race is one among several characteristics that would be covered under the proposed bill. Wilburn and the bill’s nine co-sponsors took a different approach in crafting the bill’s language, which includes providing the court with factors to consider in determining what constitutes a hate crime, he said.

The bill would add language that allows the court to consider the following factors, including:

  • whether race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability of the victim differs from that of the offender
  • whether the victim was engaged in activities promoting a group with whom the victim is associated
  • whether the offense coincided with a holiday or date of particular significance to a group with whom the victim is associated
  • whether bias-related comments, written statements or gestures were made by the offender
  • whether bias-related drawings, markings, symbols, or graffiti were left at the location where the public offense occurred
  • whether objects or items that represent the work of a hate group were left at the location of public offense occurred
  • whether the offender has previously been involved in similar offenses or is a member of or associates with members of a hate group
  • whether the victim was in or near an area or place commonly associated with or frequented by members of a particular race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability
  • whether no clear economic motive or other legitimate purpose exists to -explain the public offense against the victim

South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states that don’t have hate crimes laws, according to the AP.

Nationally, hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity and ancestry in 2020 accounted for 61% of federal hate crimes, according to federal hate crime statistics. The majority of the crimes are committed by whites.

In Iowa, hate crimes based on race, ethnicity and ancestry have increased from four in 2018 to 12, in 2020, an increase of 200%, according to federal crime statistics.

  • Last August, Nicole Poole Franklin, a white Iowan, pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges, receiving 25 years in prison, for attempting to run down a 12 year-old Black boy and a 14 year-old Latina girl because of their race.
  • In 2020, after two white men using racial slurs badly beat a Black man, DarQuan Jones, the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP called for hate crime charges. The two attackers received probation, and they were never charged with hate crimes, according to the Des Moines Register.
  • After vandalism at a northeastern Iowa mosque, a national Muslim civil rights group called for state and federal hate crime investigations.

Wilburn said he and others sponsored a bill last year to increase the number of crimes that could qualify as hate crimes, but it stalled.

Are there other bills you’re concerned about? Email [email protected].

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