Charleston shooting: Why proving a hate crime in court is so difficult

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“We believe this is a hate crime," said the police chief of Charleston, South Carolina, at an early morning press conference after a white gunman opened fire and killed nine people at a historically black church. "That is how we are investigating it." The Justice Dept. has already opened a hate-crimes investigation.

“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said. “The only reason."

But proving a hate crime—by its legal definition—is difficult. Absent an explicitly stated motive, prosecutors must infiltrate the mind of the criminal and show evidence of identity-fueled malice at the moment of violence. The possibility of other motives, such as the parking dispute reported in the case of three Muslims killed in North Carolina earlier this year, can complicate the state's case. So, too, can evidence of a physical altercation between the victim and the suspect.


South Carolina happens to be one of five states that do not have a hate crime law. The federal government isn't required to investigate and prosecute a suspected hate crime in a state that doesn't have a hate crime law, but may do so in a case that makes national headlines, such as the Charleston shooting.

This chart, which was compiled based on a review of court documents, media reports, and interviews with legal experts, shows how an act that appears fueled by hate can still fail to be recorded as such by the law.

Design by Alejandra Aristizabal

Adam Auriemma edits the Justice section at Fusion.