Colorado’s Hate Crimes Laws, Explained

A possible motive behind the mass shooting at an L.G.B.T.Q. nightclub in Colorado Springs has started to come into focus, with the suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, being held on five counts of murder and five counts of hate crimes.

In Colorado, hate crimes are known as “bias-motivated” crimes. Colorado law defines bias-motivated crimes as intimidation, harassment or physical harm that is motivated at least partly by bias against a person’s race, religion, nationality, age, disability or sexual orientation.

“This is what I would call an expressive crime,” said Bilal Aziz, a deputy district attorney who leads the bias-motivated crimes team in Denver, referring to the shooting in Colorado Springs. “Assuming the facts play out I think the way they’re headed, this guy is trying to not only harm people” but do so against “a protected class at a time when those groups are already feeling targeted.”

Though the evidence made public so far is largely circumstantial, Mr. Aziz said that a combination of factors had probably made a “very strong” case for prosecutors in Colorado Springs to infer what the gunman “was intending to communicate.”

Chief among those factors, he said, were the use of a long rifle; the popular awareness of mass shootings; the location of the shooting, at a club with an L.G.B.T.Q. clientele; and the timing of the attack, on a day of remembrance for transgender people who have been killed.

Mr. Aziz said that successful prosecutions of bias-motivated crimes usually involved a record of prior conduct by the defendant, or statements made at the time of the attack, that indicated the motive, or some other “context that strongly suggested bias motivation.”

“If you do it at a nightclub that is known for catering to the L.G.B.T.Q. population, that is strong circumstantial evidence that that was your motivation,” he said.

Colorado law has two main statutes that would be relevant. One concerns harassment and risk of injury, which are prosecuted as misdemeanors, and the other concerns assault while indicating bias motivation, which is a felony.

“The hardest thing for a prosecutor to prove is what’s inside someone’s head, unless they’re actively stating out loud what they’re doing while they’re doing it,” Mr. Aziz said. “With bias motivation, I’ve found, having done this for a few years, that jurors don’t want to believe that people act in that way.”

Before 2021, prosecutors in Colorado had to prove that a defendant’s acts had been motivated solely by hate. Now, the law requires prosecutors to establish only that bias was a factor in the case, not that it was the sole motivation.

The bias-motivated crime statutes in Colorado do not automatically make murder charges more serious, legally speaking, Mr. Aziz said, though bias could be part of the prosecution’s argument for a tougher sentence. Colorado does not have a death penalty; the maximum sentence for murder is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

At a news conference on Monday, Michael J. Allen, the district attorney for El Paso and Teller Counties, which includes Colorado Springs, reiterated the importance of moving forward with bias-motivated charges.

“It is important to let the community know that we do not tolerate bias-motivated crimes in this community, that we support communities that have been maligned, harassed, intimidated and abused,” said Mr. Allen, “and that’s one way we can do that — showing that we will put the money where our mouth is essentially.”

Cole Finegan, the U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, said the investigation was ongoing and that the Justice Department would look into “all aspects of this case,” including federal hate crimes charges.

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