Prosecutor refuses to pursue murder of atheist soldier as hate crime

I don’t have real words for this. This is why we can’t back down, and we can’t fail. If America needs to have this conversation, so be it. Atheists think about and care about all the same shit you do. We ask all the same questions. We just sometimes have a different answer.

Spc. Jose Ramirez was allegedly murdered by his friend Justin Green because he was an atheist.

A criminal complaint against the group, shows that Green’s sister believes he killed Ramirez “because Ramirez did not believe in God.”

It’s still not clear exactly when Ramirez was killed, but Texas Ranger Marshall W. Thomas claimed in his report that officers detected blood at a rural home in Petrolia, Texas after two individuals with knowledge of the crime came forward. They discovered the soldier’s body buried face down in a shallow grave, with both of his legs sticking out of the ground, covered by a tire and random trash.

I think the foxhole atheists need to turn into this, not away. Tell your friends you are an atheist and that it changes nothing about the mission ahead. Out of the closet. Now. Our silence delays our acceptance.

Don’t look away. Green’s family said he’s the one who murdered Spc. Ramirez for being an atheist. These religious extremists don’t even know what atheists are. Staying in the closet perpetuates a climate of hostility and of fear. The closet was built by them. It’s a prison. By retreating, or staying hidden we risk letting the zealotry fester into something terrible.

Jason Torpy posted at Friendly Atheist with an important question about the situation. Why was this not pursued as a hate crime? 

Because of the explicit report about Ramirez’s beliefs being a factor, I contacted the District Attorney covering the case and asked about the applicability of the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act of 2001. He said that the Act specifically excludes 1st-degree murder. He said the function of the Act is to “ratchet-up” the potential penalties, but that is irrelevant for 1st degree murder, so applying hate crimes charges would have no practical effect.

I don’t care if it has a practical effect. It’s goddamn true. Do the right thing, District Attorney. Pursue this as the vile hate crime you clearly agree it ‘would be’. Do the extra paperwork. Specialist Jose Ramirez fought for your rights, return the favor.

Maybe some lawyers can weigh in on this… before I start demanding this. My layman’s understanding is not getting past this:

Wikipedia

Two of James Byrd’s murderers were sentenced to death, while the third was sentenced to life in prison. These convictions were obtained without the assistance of hate crimes laws, since none was applicable at the time.

James Byrd’s killers were brought to justice. But still the need for the laws clearly existed, and the victim is now the namesake for the law that “has no practical effect”.

Supporters of an expansion of hate crime laws argued that hate crimes are worse than regular crimes without a prejudiced motivation from a psychological perspective. The time it takes to mentally recover from a hate crime is almost twice as long than it is for a regular crime and gay people often feel as if they are being punished for their sexuality which leads to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress DisorderThey also cited the response to Shepard’s murder by many homosexuals, especially youth, who reported going ‘back into the closet’, fearing for their safety, experiencing a strong sense of self-loathing, and upset that the same thing could happen to them because of their sexual orientation.

Now tell me again… Why the fuck is this not being handled as a hate crime?

***UPDATE:***

Somebody please tell me about a loop hole. Captain Ryan Jean seems to have found the answer I didn’t want to hear.

From Texas HB 587:

Sec. 12.47. PENALTY IF OFFENSE COMMITTED BECAUSE OF BIAS OR PREJUDICE.

(a) If an affirmative finding under Article 42.014, Code of Criminal Procedure, is made in the trial of an offense other than a first degree felony or a Class A misdemeanor, the punishment for the offense is increased to the punishment prescribed for the next highest category of offense.

The 2001 act is about raising the penalty for a crime to that of a higher category. In other words, it makes the sentencing be based on the immediately higher category rather than on the category under which the crime was tried (except that it cannot turn a misdemeanor into a felony unless one is a repeat offender). It does not establish any criminal sanctions of its own. Therefore, while the prosecutor CAN and SHOULD be publicly acknowledging the evidence that this is a hate crime (which increases the chance of success at trial), the prosecutor is correct that the act is technically not applicable to 1st Degree Murder.

At the very least, they should publicly acknowledge it as a hate crime. This is precisely the type of thing that will drive some atheists back into the closet. Stand tall, brothers and sisters. Don’t give in to fear.

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About Justin Griffith
  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    He said that the Act specifically excludes 1st-degree murder.

    It looks like the DA can’t prosecute this as a hate crime.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kitwalker1990 chriswalker

    I don’t know the statute (and don’t have time right this minute to look it up) but it makes some sense that it wouldn’t apply to first degree murder. The usual purpose of hate crime legislation is to up the penalties in play, but this story appears to be from Texas. There isn’t any penalty higher that can be put into play than death.

  • DaveL

    I looked up the actual text of the act and found no exclusion, specific or otherwise, for 1st degree murder. Further, it appears there is no general strategic rule against charging both 1st degree murder and hate crimes.

  • Ryan Jean

    From Texas HB 587:

    Sec. 12.47. PENALTY IF OFFENSE COMMITTED BECAUSE OF BIAS OR PREJUDICE.

    (a) If an affirmative finding under Article 42.014, Code of Criminal Procedure, is made in the trial of an offense other than a first degree felony or a Class A misdemeanor, the punishment for the offense is increased to the punishment prescribed for the next highest category of offense.

    The 2001 act is about raising the penalty for a crime to that of a higher category. In other words, it makes the sentencing be based on the immediately higher category rather than on the category under which the crime was tried (except that it cannot turn a misdemeanor into a felony unless one is a repeat offender). It does not establish any criminal sanctions of its own. Therefore, while the prosecutor CAN and SHOULD be publicly acknowledging the evidence that this is a hate crime (which increases the chance of success at trial), the prosecutor is correct that the act is technically not applicable to 1st Degree Murder.

  • DaveL

    That’s correct- I was looking at the federal hate crimes statute, not Texas.

  • Len Blakely

    So they have already laid first degree charges against all of those involved? I would think that those charged not with the murder but as accomplices might have this law used against them.

    No?

  • Ryan Jean

    @DaveL, #3:

    What you are referring to is the “Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act” of 2010, which is a federal statute that was passed as part of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. At one time, it was referred to as the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” which may be the source of the confusion.

    The one referenced prior was a Texas statute from 2001, named only after James Byrd Jr., and is referenced in my prior comment.

    The federal statute can and does establish penalties of its own, but it has a trigger in section 249(a)(2)(B) involving interstate travel, commerce, or disruption in order to bring it out of state jurisdiction. Pretty messed up, if you ask me, to limit it in such a way, but you can at least understand that without such a fine distinction it can be challenged on its constitutionality much more easily. My understanding of the case is that it is not considered to involve any aspects outside of the jurisdiction of Texas, in which case it would be difficult to get this law to apply.

  • Ryan Jean

    @DaveL, #5:

    Looks like I was a bit late in getting up my second explanation. Drat. ;)

    @Len Blakely, #6:

    Not unless it could be shown that the accomplices also acted out of the same reasoning. The act applies individually, so each individual’s action has to be separately shown to be motivated by hate. If they acted, for example, out of fear that the individual committing the murder would come after them too, or in order to “protect” family, friends, etc., then unfortunately it would not be able to be used.

  • DaveL

    @7, Might this apply?

    “(iii) in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A), the defendant employs a firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce

  • h. hanson

    Stand tall brothers AND SISTERS!

  • http://soundcloud/manstown2012 Ajax

    An important point would be the stacking of accusations. Multiple “counts” count. Such counts work against a defendant claiming “not guilty” of a crime. SO, the judge with poor judgment knows this and keeps the weight of the terminology “hate” out of the judgment to preserve himself as being antagonist against non-believers.

    No movie in the works. Too common, this situation.

    The judgment, however, gets him into Heaven. As his cult of superstition claims.

  • Ryan Jean

    @DaveL, #9:

    It’s possible, but tricky. Courts are careful with laws citing interstate commerce as *nearly everything* fits that if you interpret it widely enough. Was the trigger mechanism made in Taiwan? Was it assembled in a plant in Arizona? In general, a case could be made if it was sold to (or otherwise acquired by) the accused in a different state than Texas (since that is where the crime was committed), but if he got it there then very few courts would interpret the weapon’s history prior to that as relevant.

    That being said, *in theory* the federal law makes no distinction for those features, and could be claimed under the purest letter of the statute as enacted to be applicable if so much as a fraction of the metal in the blade/barrel or a lacquered wood handle was from out of state. I wouldn’t hold my breath for any court stretching the “common sense” meaning of the law that far, though.

    So, the next questions are: 1) What weapon, if any, was used, and 2) if any weapon used was acquired by the accused outside Texas. The first would appear to be affirmative as a handgun, due to gunshots being listed as the cause of death (two “bullet defects” [entry and exit holes] in the skull). The second is undetermined since nowhere in the public documents does it say that any handgun was recovered, but it does say the residence had three “bullet defects” in the walls, including the recovery of at least one bullet. Matching a gun without a reference bullet is nearly impossible, and matching a bullet to a particular store (or even region) is almost as hard.

  • Ryan Jean

    [Justin, you might want to move this up to the article, too...]

    The sickest part of the whole story, from the police report (emphasis mine):

    Source #2 advised that the group ordered a large pizza from Pizza Hut using the credit card of the victim. Source #2 advised affiant that Brittany Green and Stephanie Heaston-Corral discussed who was going to sign the credit card receipt when the pizza was delivered. When Source #2 asked about them getting in trouble for using the victim’s stolen card number, Brittany Green said there would be no trouble since the man was dead. Source #2 said that Stephanie Heaston-Corral told Brittany to stop talking. Source #2 advised affiant that she knew that neither Brittany Green nor Stephanie Heaston-Corral had a credit card of their own. Source #2 advised that Brittany Green and Stephanie Heaston-Corral practiced signing their names using the last name of the victim prior to the pizza being delivered. The large pizza, cheese sticks, and marinara sauce were delivered by a white male delivery man and that Stephanie Heaston-Corral signed the receipt using the last name of the victim.

    [...]

    Brittany Green advised at some point following the murder of Ramirez, Corral ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut and identified herself as being Mrs. Ramirez. The pizza was delivered to Brittany’s apartment. Upon arrival of the pizza, Stephanie Corral signed the receipt as Stephanie Ramirez. Brittany Green advised affiant that Corral and Justin Green often traveled to local stores and banks where they used Ramirez’ bank card that had been stolen from Ramirez by Justin Green possibly at the time of the murder.

    Wow. Not content with *simply* committing murder and covering it up, they had to go the whole nine yards by cavalierly committing fraud with their victim’s accounts. As far as I’m concerned, they deserve everything that’s coming to them, and more…

  • Tx Skeptic

    The prosecutor should go ahead and introduce the hate crime aspect into the case. Here’s why…

    So many cases seem to get plead down to a lower level, or the prosecution ends up pursuing a lower level charge because of insufficient evidence at the higher level, that it seem conceivable for this to end up at less than 1st degree murder. It is possible that Green was enraged over Ramirez’s atheism but acted spontaneously, leaving an opening for the defense to make the case for 2nd degree murder instead.

    In that case, the effect of the hate crime application would be important at maintaining the highest punishment level. If the prosecutor does not introduce it into the discussion now, it may make it harder to make his case later. It might also strengthen his chances at 1st degree as there would be no practical reason for the defense to try to get the charge reduced one step.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I have stayed at Holiday Inn Express.

  • Sour Tomato Sand

    In that case, the effect of the hate crime application would be important at maintaining the highest punishment level. If the prosecutor does not introduce it into the discussion now, it may make it harder to make his case later. It might also strengthen his chances at 1st degree as there would be no practical reason for the defense to try to get the charge reduced one step.

    Well, that’s not exactly how it’d work. The prosecution is going ahead with the first-degree murder charge. The defense doesn’t get to plead to a lesser offense unless the prosecution offers a plea bargain (think: you can’t go into a murder trial and plead guilty to theft and have the prosecution drop all charges unless the prosecution offers that option), in which case there wouldn’t be a defense at all because the defendant would be pleading guilty. Generally (but not always) plea bargains are offered when the prosecution doesn’t think they have a solid enough case to be comfortably sure in the conviction. Given the two complaining witnesses, I don’t think the prosecution believes that.

    Essentially the prosecution has two options here: treat the case as second-degree murder and apply the hate crime law or treat it as first-degree murder. The second-degree sense isn’t a smart deal, because it means that the prosecution would have to prove that 1) the victim was an atheist, 2) the defendant hates atheists, 3) the defendant was inclined to violence towards atheists, 4) the defendant killed the victim, and 5) the reason that the defendant killed the victim was that he was an atheist. For all of these, the burden of proof would be on the prosecution.

    The first-degree murder charge fits. The prosecution can prove mens rea through the treatment of the body of the victim and because the defendant seems to have stolen the victim’s credit cards and such. Theft is easy to prove in this case, and if you tie theft to murder, it’s REALLY easy to get a first-degree murder conviction. It’s also easier to establish mens rea because they knew each other before the murder. So, from there, the prosecution has two things to prove: 1) the defendant killed the victim, and 2) the defendant did so intentionally.

    Now think of the issues that would arise if this was treated in court as a hate crime. The defense would likely be able to use it as a reason to exclude atheists from the jury due to expected bias against the defendant. This took place in a rural area in Texas, which is predominately Christian, which is going to affect jury composition and would definitely affect the results. The defense could pursue an “atheist-panic” defense which might not necessarily lead to an acquittal, but could lead to jury deadlock (which has happened several times in the past with trans-panic defenses.)

    I ask you to remember that the prosecution only has ONE SHOT at this, due to double jeopardy laws. They have to take the route that is most likely to result in a conviction.

    While I absolutely agree that this appears to be a hate-crime right now (keeping in mind we don’t yet know all the facts, and the facts have not been tried), I don’t think it’s an appropriate case to argue that hate crime legislation should cover atheists. Unfortunately, there probably will be crimes in the future will that will be possible.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I’m just a forensic psychology student.)

  • left0ver1under

    It sounds like the exact same third-rate police “work” that went into the “investigation” of Madeline Murray O’Hair’s murder. They assumed she was a thief instead of being kidnapped and murdered.

    No doubt the public persecutor in this case will try and give a reduced charge like manslaughter as a “message” to atheists (sorta like when Ashcroft took the death penalty off the table for James Kopp):

    “If you kill one of them, you’ll get a lighter sentence.”

  • ja

    I have a real problem with the separate ‘hate crime’. It essentially says that some criminal murders are worse than others, that some victims demand a stricter standard of justice than other victims. (I am very much an ‘out’ atheist)

    It’s just not true. Someone who is murdered for the contents of his wallet is just as dead as someone murdered for his beliefs or the color of his skin. This is a bad, bad message. All victims are victims, regardless of the reason (or reason presumed by the prosecutor).

  • Sour Tomato Sand

    No doubt the public persecutor in this case will try and give a reduced charge like manslaughter as a “message” to atheists (sorta like when Ashcroft took the death penalty off the table for James Kopp):

    As has already been said in the original post, the prosecution is pursuing a charge of first-degree murder. There is no indication that they are looking to settle with a plea bargain. Can we please avoid taking up the martyr mantle before it’s warranted?

    It’s just not true. Someone who is murdered for the contents of his wallet is just as dead as someone murdered for his beliefs or the color of his skin. This is a bad, bad message. All victims are victims, regardless of the reason (or reason presumed by the prosecutor).

    This would be wonderful reasoning if our only goal was punishment. The fact of the matter is, however, that people who commit hate crimes are likely to commit them again against the group they hate. What hate crime statutes do is provide for longer sentences for these people, because they are more likely to re-offend.

    And yeah, there are a million flaws to this process, but you’re attacking it from the wrong angle here.

  • jay

    “This would be wonderful reasoning if our only goal was punishment. The fact of the matter is, however, that people who commit hate crimes are likely to commit them again against the group they hate. What hate crime statutes do is provide for longer sentences for these people, because they are more likely to re-offend.”

    This is a bit of a truism that is bounced around as a post hoc reason, but the truth of it (or if it’s even a legitimate reason) is quite questionable. Very few people repeat a murder or similar crime after conviction, and those that do are predominantly the street/gang crime variety, NOT the classic ‘hate crime’.

    And there are plenty of hate crimes that are committed except they are not against a group that has special government sanction. People who kill out of a hatred for illegal immigrants (where the reason is the illegal status, not nationality), or kill drug addicts or prostitutes can be just as guilty of a crime of hate… but those victims are less important.

    This is really not equal treatment (of the victims) under the law.

  • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

    No doubt the public persecutor in this case will try and give a reduced charge like manslaughter as a “message” to atheists (sorta like when Ashcroft took the death penalty off the table for James Kopp):

    Ashcroft took the death penalty off the table because it was the only way France would agree to extradite Kopp to the US. Rather a lot of more civilized places that have banned the death penalty won’t agree to return a criminal who might be sentenced to death to the U.S. So, to get Kopp back in the US, Ashcroft agreed to waive the death penalty.

    Link: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2001/June/253ag.htm

  • Sarcen

    I want to see justice done in this case, but I disagree with the premises of this article.

    1. I personally disagree with hate-crime legislation. We find it repulsive that a criminal chooses his victims based on race, gender, religion, etc. because it says something shameful about our society. But it crosses a line to say that certain views (motives) held by a criminal make his crimes worse. We then begin to define “thoughtcrime.” A heinous crime is heinous regardless of why it is done. Where motives matter to a case (including bigoted ones) they usually come out in court. The inconsistency with which sentences are applied is already appalling and hate crime legislation just exacerbates this problem.

    2. “…the prosecutor CAN and SHOULD [acknowledge] that this is a hate crime (which increases the chance of success at trial)…”

    How is this a good thing? Whatever increases the chance of conviction without changing the objective facts of the case is, by definition, a bias and unfair. Too often, juries return verdicts based not on the question of guild, but rather on the severity of the crime. This is why prosecutors like to show juries gruesome crime-scene photos. It prejudices a jury against the accused. And so does labeling the crime as something somehow extra-loathsome. We must, at all times, consider the possibility that the accused is innocent and trust the evidence rather than emotion.

    That is, after all, what we atheist are all about, isn’t it?

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