How do I hate thee?

Despite a dip in documented hate crimes in Kentucky, officials acknowledge most are never reported

Jul 29, 2009 at 5:00 am

Jordan Gruver was waiting in line to buy a soda at the Meade County fair on a hot July afternoon in 2006 when a trio of Klansmen approached.

Calling the 16-year-old of Panamanian dissent a “spic,” one of the men proceeded to spit on Gruver, throw whiskey in his face and punch him in the jaw. The 5-foot-3, 150-pound teenager fell to the ground and curled up in the fetal position as the group closed in and began repeatedly kicking him with their steel-toed boots.

The brutal and very public assault — apparently carried out because the men mistakenly believed Gruver was an illegal Latino immigrant — left the boy with a shattered jaw, broken arm, two cracked ribs and multiple cuts and bruises.

“As they were kicking me, I prayed to myself. I said, ‘God, just please let me go. Please let me make it home,’” Gruver testified about the beating during a civil trial last year, according to media accounts of the case. The Southern Poverty Law Center represented the victim in a lawsuit filed against the Imperial Klans of America — the Kentucky-based Ku Klux Klan group (one of the nation’s largest) to which his attackers belonged — and won a $2.5 million verdict on his behalf.

The brazen attack and subsequent criminal and civil trials garnered vast national media attention from news outlets including CNN and MSNBC. For the most part, however, the public remains oblivious to crimes of hate, which experts say go largely unreported, and are difficult to prove even when they are brought to light.

“Hate crimes are wildly underestimated,” says Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups and bias-fueled crimes nationwide.

Although the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet recently issued a report suggesting hate crimes in the commonwealth declined slightly in 2007, state officials acknowledge the study does not accurately reflect the prevalence of such incidents.

The annual study states that Kentucky law enforcement agencies reported only 56 “hate-related incidents” in 2007, compared with 65 the year before. But according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, about 56 percent of hate crimes are never reported. Of the incidents that are documented, approximately 19 percent are validated by police and prosecuted as hate crimes.

“That is not necessarily the fault of police, although sometimes it is a problem in their reporting,” Potok says. “More than half of hate crimes are believed to not be reported to police at all.” In addition, he points out that a lack of strong evidence often results in officers and prosecutors declining to classify an incident as a hate crime, instead opting for a “regular” charge.

One such case unfolded in Louisville several years ago, resulting in civil rights advocates criticizing local prosecutors for their handling of a racially charged homicide investigation. In that case, an all-white jury acquitted four out of five white suspects charged in connection with the fatal stabbing of a black teenager named Lamartez Griffin. Activists argued the investigation should have been more vigorously pursued as a hate crime, while prosecutors maintained they could not gather enough evidence to support that theory, even though they believed the killing was race-related.

The FBI defines a hate crime as an offense motivated by bias against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity. The majority of hate crimes in Kentucky are race-related, with 92 percent of those incidents targeting black victims. The second most common motivation for hate crimes in the state is bias against homosexuals, followed by religion, and finally ethnicity.

Each year, law enforcement agencies across the nation submit data about hate crimes to the FBI on a voluntary basis. In Kentucky, of 324 participating departments, 23 reported a hate crime in 2007.

In its latest report, the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Department reiterates that many hate crimes are undoubtedly going unreported both by victims and law enforcement agencies. For example, the study points out that in 2007, Mississippi reported zero hate crimes, with Alabama reporting only six.

Experts say victims of hate crimes often are reluctant to come forward because they fear the perpetrator might seek retribution, because they believe law enforcement will not take their claim seriously, or because they assume their allegation cannot be proven.

“We know the statistics being reported can be misleading. We know there are more hate crimes than what are being reported,” says Morgan Ransdell, general counsel for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, an agency tasked with helping enforce the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

But a recent uptick in requests for assistance from the Commission on Human Rights suggests that “don’t tell” mentality might be changing.

In the past two years, the commission has received a record number of calls, with 2,144 individuals seeking assistance in 2008. From that pool, the commission ended up filing 389 complaints alleging illegal discrimination, many of which remain unresolved.

“The commission has litigated dozens of cases involving hate incidents, but in many cases the culprits aren’t identified and there’s no one to prosecute,” Ransdell says. “These hate actions are despicable, but they are veiled in secrecy.” 

LEO Weekly staff writer Phillip M. Bailey contributed to this story.