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Top Legal Questions on Hate Crimes

When victims of crime appear to be targeted for their race, nationality, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, one of the first questions that gets asked is whether the attack was a hate crime. As when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina after telling them, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."

Ultimately, Roof was not charged with a hate crime, which can raise even more questions about what qualifies as a hate crime and when and how they are prosecuted. Here are a few answers to those questions:

1. North Carolina Killings: What Is a Hate Crime?

After three Muslim students were shot in the head in a Chapel Hill condominium complex, many thought the killings would be prosecuted as a hate crime. We took a look at federal hate crime legislation and state statutes on the matter, which can vary from state to state.

2. Are Church Fires Hate Crimes?

In the wake of Dylann Roof's massacre in Charleston, seven churches in five states caught fire, leading many to wonder whether all church fires should be charged as hate crimes. But first, investigators must determine whether the fire was even arson before trying to discern a racial or religious motivation for the fire.

3. Can a Stupid Joke Be a Hate Crime?

In a country that values free speech so highly, differentiating between humor and hate can be a difficult task. When, if ever, do crass, tasteless jokes rise to the level of threats or intimidation? It may come down to ascertaining the speaker's intent, an even thornier legal question.

4. What Are the Penalties for a Hate Crime?

Once you've figured out whether a particular criminal offense qualifies as a hate crime, next comes determining the proper punishment. Generally, states have hate crime enhancements that allow for tougher penalties for hate crimes. But whether you spend a year in jail or ten will depend on whether you're charged by state or federal authorities.

5. 10 States With the Most Hate Crimes Per Capita

So where do most hate crimes happen? While most might assume that southern states have the most racially motivated crimes, the top three on the FBI's annual report on hate crime statistics may surprise you.

Hate crimes can happen anywhere. If you've been charged with a hate crime, or believe you've been the victim of one, you should contact an experienced criminal law attorney near you.

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