Court to hear appeal in Massachusetts hate crime
Oct. 05, 2014
BOSTON (AP) — Tizaya Robinson was stabbed with a stick, hit over the head with a bottle, kicked in the head and pummeled as he lay on the ground by a group of people who hurled racial epithets and threatened to kill him.
When the beating was over, the 17-year-old had lumps on his head, nerve damage and no feeling in half of his hand and half of his foot. He was hospitalized for three days.
Now, three of the seven people convicted of a hate crime and civil rights violation in the 2008 beating want the highest court in Massachusetts to vacate their convictions. They argue that the judge gave jurors at their trial faulty instructions on the state's hate crime law by saying race did not have to be the sole reason for the assault.
The Supreme Judicial Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in a case that is being closely watched by anti-discrimination groups.
Seven groups, led by the Anti-Defamation League, argue that the defendants convicted in Robinson's beating are trying to water down the hate crime law.
"Our concern is that it essentially amounts to a changing of the law and weakening of the law," said Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League's New England regional office.
"It potentially gives jurors a way out of finding someone guilty of a hate crime," said Trestan, who helped prepare a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
But lawyers for Amanda Kelly, Christopher Bratlie and Kevin Shdeed say the trial judge made an error that could have helped persuade the jury to convict them on a charge of assault and battery for purposes of intimidation, a hate crime under Massachusetts law.
The case stems from a fight that broke out after a house party in Marshfield on June 8, 2008. Most of the guests were white teenagers and 20-somethings from Marshfield, a popular beach town about 30 miles south of Boston. Robinson, who is black, lived in Boston and went to the party with his girlfriend and another friend.
During the trial, there was conflicting testimony from party guests and a witness who was house-sitting on the street and saw the fight.
An account included in a brief filed by prosecutors says the trouble began after a white guest used racial epithets during an argument with another black guest. Robinson protested the man's use of the N-word. A fight then broke out between Robinson and the white guest, Jay Rains, one the remaining four who pleaded guilty.
From there the accounts differ. Robinson took out a can of Mace and began spraying it, hitting several people, including Kelly, though witnesses don't agree on whether he was already being attacked.
Robinson ended up on the ground and was kicked and punched repeatedly as he was curled up in a fetal position.
Lawyers for the defendants say Robinson was not an innocent bystander, saying he directed epithets at the white party guests.
"To the contrary, Robinson was the aggressor, taking it upon himself to condemn Rains' speech and initiating hostilities with the other guests by using words of aggression such as 'whores' and 'crackers' and macing them in the face," Kelly's lawyer, Kirsten Zwicker Young, wrote in a brief filed with the SJC.
The trial judge, in response to a question during deliberations, told jurors that prosecutors must prove that the defendants committed the assault with the specific intent to intimidate Robinson because of his race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability, but that it did not have to be the sole reason for the assault.
Lawyers for the defendants say the judge should have told jurors that Robinson's race must be the primary motivation for the assault in order for them to be convicted under the hate crimes law.
"The statute is intended to protect society from individuals who would commit acts of violence because of their prejudice, so it stands to follow that their prejudice should be the substantial motivating factor," Young said. "You have a lot of cases — like the Kelly case — where there are mixed motives going on, so the jury has to be able to balance the facts of the case with the law to make a determination of guilt."
Prosecutors said the hate crime law does not require a singular motivation.
"Here, the jurors were not misled. The judge's answer informed them that they had to find that Robinson's race was a reason he was attacked," Assistant District Attorney Kristin Freeman wrote in a legal brief.
"The defendants' argument is premised on the misconception that there can only be one actual reason for the defendant's conduct. However, in fact human behavior is not so simple."