"I do believe this was a hate crime," Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen told reporters.
The comments were applauded by observers glad to see authorities not mincing words when talking about the mass shooting. The FBI and the Department of Justice quickly announced that they have opened up a hate crime investigation for the shooting. The only issue is: South Carolina is one of only five states in the nation that doesn't have a hate crime law on its books.
It's not for a lack of trying. State Representative Wendell Gilliard, has pushed the state legislature to pass a bill for the last few sessions, including a bill he introduced during the last session in 2013, which would have created special penalties for crimes committed because of someone's race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin or sexual orientation. His district includes the church where the shooting took place on Wednesday night.
“It fell on deaf ears," he told Fusion, referring to the failed attempt to pass the bill, which got stuck in the House judiciary committee.
Although there are federal hate crime laws on the books, having a state law allows a state to issue harsher sentences if a local crime is committed that was motivated on the basis of a protected class. The South Carolina bill would have added a felony charge to crimes motivated by race, sex, age, national origin, or sexual orientation, which would carry additional prison time and fines.
“I strongly believe in in-house rules. We can’t depend on federal government for everything. We need to be stewards within our own state government," Rep. Gilliard said. "The federal government can't be any and everywhere, and to duplicate what they already have — it would reinforce the message.”
In 2013, the latest year for which the numbers are available, the FBI listed 51 reported hate crimes in South Carolina. There are currently nineteen hate groups actively operating in the state, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"If you look at some of our statistics when we talk about race and gender violence, even with the homeless population here… It’s all centered around race," said Rep. Gilliard, noting that he has tried to make crimes against the homeless a hate crime. "I want to create a penalty to send the message to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
South Carolina, indeed, has a deep history of racial violence, dating back to the days of slavery. At the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the scene of last night's shooting, a planned slave revolt was foiled in 1822, resulting in the execution of 32 black men. Violence continued through the bloody Civil War, when South Carolina fought as part of the Confederacy, and right through the Reconstruction period, when massive race riots took place in 1870. A report from the Equal Justice Initiative, released earlier this year, tallied a total of 164 black men who were lynched in the state between 1877 and 1950.
In April of this year, North Charleston made international headlines after a white police officer was captured on video shooting a black man in the back as he tried to run away, following a routine traffic stop. That officer was indicted for murder earlier this month.
All this while the state continues to fly the racially-charged Confederate flag next to its state house building.
A reason that so many states have passed their own hate crime laws is that the standard for prosecuting a federal hate crime is at times very high, said Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, a group that has tracked U.S. hate crime legislation for years.
"If it's a misdemeanor crime that was motivated by hate towards a particular group, that would not likely be covered by federal statutes under a federal law," she told Fusion. "But with state laws, which usually have a significantly lower standard, you might be able to prosecute it at the state level."
The other states that don’t have hate crime laws are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, and Wyoming.
The federal government has likely opened their own hate crime investigation into Wednesday's shooting because "the state doesn't have any grounds to do it on its own," she said. At some point in the investigation, the federal and state governments will have to decide whether the suspect, who was taken into custody this morning, will be tried in federal court, she added.
"Why states are not passing [these laws], it's really hard to say," Ahussain said. "It could have to do with the composition of their legislative branch at the time, or it could be because people think it's irrelevant because there's a federal hate crime statute now."
But, the federal hate crime statute has only been around for about five years.
"Prior to that, I'm not sure what these five states have been thinking. It's a really important question for state legislative branches to consider," she said.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.