ATLANTA - A decades-long debate over hate crimes legislation is seeing a renewed wave of attention in Georgia following the death of Ahmaud Arbery
Arbery, 25, who was black, was gunned down in coastal south Georgia in February. He was unarmed.
Gregory and Travis McMichael, both white, are charged with his murder. The pair chased down Arbery, who they believed was a burglar, before shooting him multiple times, according to police documents. The McMichaels claimed self-defense.
Some believe Arbery was targeted because of his race, but Georgia is one of only four states without a hate crimes law. The others are South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot and killed while out jogging in a south Georgia neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. (Photo provided by family members)
Advocates, such as Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's southern division, include Indiana in that group, calling the state's recently passed hate crimes statue too "convoluted and diluted" to count.
Padilla-Goodman is optimistic that the Arbery case will help pass a hate crimes bill this year with the investigation in the national spotlight.
"It's deeply disappointing that it takes such a horrific tragedy to put a necessary and comprehensive bill into action," said Padilla-Goodman, "but sometimes it takes tragedy."
There are numerous hate crimes-related proposals before Georgia lawmakers this year, but former felony prosecutor Chuck Efstration's HB 426 appears to have the most momentum.
"This is not criminalizing thought or speech," said state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula. "The Hate Crimes Act would allow prosecutors to seek enhanced penalties only after a defendant is convicted of an underlying offense."
Padilla-Goodman helped craft the bi-partisan bill. ADL is one of 25 organizations part of the Coalition for a Hate Free Georgia, advocating for better hate crime laws.
"Hate crimes are very different from a regular crime," Padilla-Goodman told FOX 5's Emilie Ikeda. "If I were to steal your wallet you'd feel broke; if I stole your wallet and yelled a racial or ethnic slur, people are going to feel that across the nation and world."
Critics fear the bill could limit free speech or judges' power in sentencing, since HB 426 requires a minimum sentence. It passed in the House last year but stalled in the Senate, largely at the behest of Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro. He cited limited Republican support.
But Stone told FOX 5's Emilie Ikeda this year may be different with increased discussion around the topic in light of the Ahmaud Arbery case, calling the increased urgency on the manner a "good thing."
Stone said he would like to see a hate crimes bill pass, but it likely won't be one without carefully thought-out alterations. "We don't want to be pushed in the direction of passing legislation that we could, if we reflect on it, passed a better bill," Stone said.
Georgia actually has a hate crime law on the books, but it was ruled unconstitutionally vague in 2004.
Should a bill pass this session, it cannot be applied to the Arbery case because it was not law on the date of his death. But the U.S. Department of Justice is considering federal hate crime charges, per the request of Georgia Attorney General, Chris Carr.
Some Democrats have pushed for HB 426 to be renamed the Ahmaud Arbery Hate Crimes Bill. Stone strongly pushed back on the premise because it references a pending case, adding, "We try not to influence decision makers in the judiciary as to how they should go with a particular case."
Some lawmakers will be joining ADL representatives in a public webinar Friday, May 22 at noon to discuss the hate crimes bill.