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Hate Crime Charges Dropped Against Black Man for ‘Cracker’ Term

August 29, 1991

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Prosecutors said Thursday they’ve decided to drop assault charges that could have invoked the state racial hate crimes law against a black man who called a white police officer a ″cracker.″

There simply wasn’t enough evidence that Michael Hamm, 21, assaulted police Officer Stephen Keyes in Punta Gorda, Assistant State Attorney Paul Sullivan said in a telephone interview from that Southwest Florida town.

The Hate Crimes Act, first passed in 1989 to combat racially motivated offenses, would have boosted the charge against Hamm from a first-degree misdemeanor to a felony.

Hamm’s attorney, Public Defender Mark Cooper, said he never believed the term ″cracker″ qualified as a racial epithet that could kick in the hate crimes law.

According to Keyes, Hamm told him, ″I’ll shoot you, you white cracker″ after the officer broke up an argument between Hamm and a young woman June 24 at an apartment.

Sullivan said an investigation showed Hamm was walking away from Keyes when he made the comment, that he was not armed and made no threatening moves.

Hamm remains jailed on unrelated charges of possession and sale of cocaine, Sullivan said.

The case drew national attention because Hamm was among the first blacks charged with a racially motivated crime against a white person under Florida’s hate crimes law.

″I’m told it’s the first one in the state,″ Sullivan said. ″It’s the first one I’ve ever come across.″

″Cracker″ is often seen as a derogatory term for a poor Southern white, although it is sometimes used as a friendly term among whites. Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Florida native, has often referred to himself as a ″cracker″ and a one-time minor league baseball franchise was called the Atlanta Crackers.

Allen Morris, author of several books on Florida history, said several origins of the word have been suggested, including as a cattle term related to the sound of a cowboy cracking a whip.

Joan Peppard, associate Southern counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said she was satisfied with the investigation and was pleased that prosecutors considered the hate crimes law in their probe.

″We understand there’s not a viable charge of assault that can be brought against the black defendant,″ she said. ″We feel that the law is being invoked properly throughout the state. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are becoming increasingly adept at utilizing the law.″

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