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Georgia Lawmakers Renew Push For Hate Crime Bill After Death Of Ahmaud Arbery

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia. That's one of only four states without a hate crime law. Video showing the unarmed Arbery being shot to death by one of two armed white men who had been following him has renewed calls for the Georgia legislature to pass such a law. Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting has this report.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: When Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds announced the arrest of Gregory and Travis McMichael for killing Ahmaud Arbery this week, he said they were charged with murder and aggravated assault and nothing else.

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VIC REYNOLDS: There's no hate crime in Georgia. There isn't.

FOWLER: This despite the McMichaels being white and Arbery black and the idea that racial bias may have played a hand in his killing as he jogged through a Brunswick neighborhood back in February. Georgia did have a law that added tougher penalties for those that commit crimes based on class bias. It passed in 2000. And then...

CHUCK EFSTRATION: In 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court held it to be unconstitutional because of the vagueness - failing to define these specific protected classes.

FOWLER: That's Representative Chuck Efstration, who is a white Republican and a lead sponsor of the 2019 Georgia Hate Crimes Act. The bill would allow stronger punishments if a jury finds a crime was committed against someone because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability. When lawmakers debated this bill last year, many Republicans, like Representative Sheri Gilligan, questioned why it was even needed.

SHERI GILLIGAN: We are lucky that in Georgia, all crime victims are equal before the eyes of the law, regardless of their skin color or the skin color of their assailant.

FOWLER: It eventually passed the House and went to the state Senate, where it's languished for the past year without a single hearing. The bill got a second chance on Tuesday, when a graphic video depicting Arbery's death raced across social media and made national news. That's when state authorities took over the case and made arrests within two days.

Representative Calvin Smyre is a black Democrat who has served in the Georgia House since 1975 and co-sponsored the latest hate crimes bill. Though he's seen lawmakers fail to act on similar measures before, he thinks Arbery's death will force the legislature to act this time.

CALVIN SMYRE: It's unfortunate that it's times like these that these types of incidents causes us to act. To me, that's an abdication of our responsibility as state legislators.

FOWLER: Georgia's legislature has been on hiatus since March because of the coronavirus. Smyre says when lawmakers do return, likely in June, there will be 10 working days left for the Senate to act.

SMYRE: Then there'll be three states in the nation without a hate crime bill other than four.

FOWLER: Those other states are Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.