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Monthanus and Eric had been busy arranging her father’s funeral while fielding phone calls and messages from family, friends and strangers. A victims’ advocate assigned by the district attorney’s office helped the couple apply for state reimbursement for the cremation, the funeral and other expenses. Donations flooded into their GoFundMe page, and they blew past their goal of $10,000 within days. Mayor London Breed and Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered condolences. The support was overwhelming and odd. Someone had been falsely claiming to reporters that he was Vicha’s son and spoke on behalf of the family about what would happen to his remains. Another person claiming to be Vicha’s son had set up a fund-raiser in his name.

That week, on Feb. 4, the couple spoke with San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, on a call. A former public defender, Boudin was part of a new wave of progressive prosecutors who entered office the year before with the promise of reform. Monthanus and Eric voted for him. Now they wanted action. “We were like, ‘Is this a hate crime?’ He was like, ‘I can’t talk about this,’” Eric says. “It was just the way that he answered the question that made me feel like he didn’t really care about our emotions, about what we were asking about.”

Boudin, who couldn’t discuss the particulars of the case, understood where Eric and Monthanus were coming from. “Any time a family suffers a violent crime, a homicide in particular, there’s questions,” Boudin told me. “Why did this happen? How could it have been prevented? Often, the natural human response is to want someone to blame for the pain that you’re experiencing.” He added, “Although our system is pretty effective at processing cases and punishing, we’re not effective at providing the kinds of answers to families in pain and need to feel a sense of closure, or to be able to move on with their lives after suffering often unthinkable harm.”

Most states — 48, as well as the District of Columbia — have laws addressing hate crimes that are motivated by a victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation, among other classifications. These laws can add time to an underlying sentence; in California, they can extend a sentence by three years. But in practice, proving bias is difficult, especially when there’s no explicit expression of it. After interviewing prosecutors across more than 30 states, Avlana Eisenberg, a law professor at Florida State University, found that district attorney’s offices “often avoid adding hate-crime charges even — and perhaps especially — when the crime is particularly horrific,” she wrote in The Atlantic this year. This is in part because the defendant already faces a long prison sentence, and also because, as one prosecutor put it, “it’s impossible to know what’s in someone’s heart.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in June that federal prosecutors declined to pursue hate-crimes charges in about four out of every five cases from 2005 to 2019, citing “insufficient evidence.”

If Watson is convicted of murder, he could face 25 years to life in state prison. Being found guilty of a hate crime would not extend such a sentence significantly, but the designation has always symbolized more to victims and their families: the difference between calling out prejudice and denying it.

One month after the Atlanta shootings, a white gunman killed eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. Four of the victims were Sikh, prompting calls to examine whether the gunman was motivated by bias. Investigators interviewed some 100 people and reviewed 175,000 computer files, some of which indicated that the gunman had visited white-supremacist websites. In July, however, the F.B.I. concluded that the gunman, who killed himself after the shooting, had not acted out of “bias or a desire to advance an ideology,” but suffered from a mental illness and had committed “suicidal murder.” The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, published a statement asking the bureau to clarify “how and why” it ruled out bias as a motive: “Though law enforcement has said this investigation is over, for all the families who lost loved ones, the survivors, the Sikh community and anyone else impacted by hate violence, these questions will remain forever.”

The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Biden in May, primarily aims to improve crime reporting and data collection. While it does not change the legal definition of a hate crime, the legislation commits funds to fast-track federal reviews of hate-crime investigations and approves grants for local law enforcement agencies. It also encourages those agencies to raise awareness about the impact of hate crimes and the services available to victims. The law was celebrated for recognizing the need to better track violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But it also drew criticism for effectively endorsing more policing at a time when law enforcement faced intense scrutiny, as well as for failing to address the root causes of racism or crime.

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