BOSTON (AP) — As authorities in Vermont push forward with their investigation of the weekend shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent, they are weighing whether to treat the violence as a hate crime.
The three young men were shot and seriously injured Saturday while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington. The victims were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, police said. The suspect, a white man in his 40s, fired at them with a handgun, police said.
Jason Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday and has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder.
The shooting has rocked the local community and comes amid an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas war began.
But whether it can be declared a hate crime is complicated, especially since authorities have said they don’t yet have evidence to call it that.
Vermont has a hate crimes statute that applies to someone whose crime is motivated “in whole or in part, by the victim’s actual or perceived protected category.” That includes race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, service in the U.S. Armed Forces or the National Guard and disability.
Prosecutors can seek increased penalties for hate crimes, including longer jail sentences and higher fines.
A person cannot be convicted of a hate crime alone, but the charge would enhance penalties — including longer jail sentences and higher fines — for related crimes that are found to be motivated by hate, ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling said. He believes the state hate crimes statue could apply in this case.
“Based on the information that is available, it appears this crime might have been motivated by the victims’ identity and, if that is true, it would be appropriate to seek the hate crimes enhancement,” Schilling said, adding that the motive behind the shooting will be critical in determining whether this is treated as a hate crime.
Still, Chittenden County State’s attorney Sarah George told reporters on Monday that the state doesn’t “yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement,” which under Vermont law must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I do want to be clear that there is no question this was a hateful act,” she said.
If Eaton is charged with a hate crime under state law, it would likely be in addition to the three charges of attempted murder he already faces. George described the charges as “life felonies,” which carry a sentence of 20 years to life.
For lesser charges such as crimes carrying less than five years in jail, the statute calls for an additional five years or a fine of not more than $10,000 — or both. But for more serious charges like attempted murder, the court would most likely consider a sentence on the hate crime charges as part of the overall sentence.
The U.S. Department of Justice has said it also is investigating the case and weighing whether to bring federal civil rights charges. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment when asked what kind of a sentence federal charges might carry.