Jessie K. Liu, who President Trump appointed earlier this year as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said on Oct. 25 during a community meeting organized by her office that she is committed to aggressively prosecute all forms of hate crimes, including those targeting the LGBT community.
The meeting of the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Hate-Bias Task Force took place at the Third District D.C. Police Headquarters at 1620 V St., N.W.
Among those who spoke in addition to Liu were members of her staff who specialize in hate crimes cases, a representative of the D.C. police and the FBI and an official with the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s Anti-Violence Project. Gay libertarian activist Martin Moulton, vice chair of the Third District Police Citizens Advisory Council, served as moderator of the meeting.
“I want to thank our community and government partners, the D.C. Anti-Violence Project, the 3D Citizens Advisory Council and the Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Affairs, who helped our office plan this event tonight,” Liu said.
“We are very focused on reducing violent crime, and hate crimes are violent crimes,” she told the gathering of about 60 people.
“As an office historically we have been fully committed to prosecuting hate crimes,” she said. “And as a woman of color myself I feel very emotionally strongly that we can’t tolerate anyone in our community being targeted because of race or religion or sexual orientation or gender or gender identity or any of the protected classes,” Liu said.
She was referring to the D.C. Bias-Related Crimes Act of 1989, which defines a bias-related or hate crime as a criminal act or attempted criminal act “that demonstrates an accused’s prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibility, homelessness, physical disability, matriculation or political affiliation of a victim.”
The act gives D.C. judges authority to fine someone convicted of a hate crime up to one-and-a-half times more than the maximum fine and hand down a prison term up to one-and-a-half times greater than the maximum term established for the underlying crime.
Trump nominated Liu for the D.C. U.S. attorney position to replace Channing Philips, who had been appointed by President Obama. The Senate confirmed Liu’s nomination on Sept. 14, and she took office on Sept. 24.
She served from 2002-2006 as an assistant U.S. attorney for D.C., where she prosecuted criminal cases. She subsequently served in several senior positions at the Justice Department, including the post of deputy attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, under the administration of President George W. Bush. She later served as a partner in two prominent D.C. law firms.
Local attorneys familiar with her role as assistant U.S. attorney in D.C., including gay rights attorney Paul Smith, have called Liu a tough but fair prosecutor who is well liked in the D.C. legal community.
During the community meeting, Liu and her staff, including Veronica Sanchez, deputy chief assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the office’s Felony Major Crimes Section, indicated that the office under Liu’s leadership would continue the policies carried out in prior administrations of reaching out to the LGBT community in efforts to prosecute anti-LGBT related crimes, including hate crimes.
Those policies began under Eric Holder, who served as U.S. attorney for D.C. in the Clinton administration before being appointed as attorney general by Obama. Holder has been credited with creating the Hate-Bias Task Force at the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office in the early 1990s.
Among those speaking at the task force meeting was D.C. Police Lt. Brett Parson, who oversees the department’s Special Liaison Branch that includes the police LGBT Liaison Unit.
Parson said he and other D.C. police officials monitoring hate crimes believe the increase in the number of D.C. hate crimes in recent years, including those targeting LGBT people, could be due, at least in part, to an aggressive police training program on hate crimes for all officers on the force.
He said D.C. police investigators have found that many victims of hate crimes often report to police the underlying crime of which they were victimized such as an assault, robbery, or property damage. But they often don’t mention the person committing the crime may have targeted them because they were gay, transgender or a member of one of the other groups or categories covered under D.C.’s hate crimes law, according to Parson.
For at least some crime victims, Parson said, only after a trained police officer or detective specifically asks them if the motive for the crime was bias against them do they acknowledge the underlying crimes was motivated by hate or bias.
“Bias crimes can be missed very easily,” he said. “We train our officers on how to recognize them.”
Parson noted that in D.C. over a period of many years the combined category of sexual orientation and gender identity hate crimes represent by far the highest number of hate crimes reported in the District each year.
Sanchez, who oversees hate crimes prosecutions at the U.S. attorney’s office, said her office has a higher standard than D.C. police in determining whether a crime should be charged in court as a hate crime.
“The criminal act must have been motivated in bias,” she said. “And that’s not easy to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
LGBT activists have expressed concern in recent years that the U.S. attorney’s office has been overly cautious about listing violent attacks against LGBT people, including two at least two murders, as hate crimes.
Sanchez and other officials with the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office have said they didn’t list the incidents raised by LGBT activists as hate crimes because there was a lack of sufficient evidence to support a hate crime charge.
Stephania Mahdi, who serves as chair of the D.C. Center’s Anti-Violence Project, told the meeting that the project, among other things, works with the U.S. attorney’s office to provide community impact statements to judges during the sentencing phase of hate crimes cases involving LGBT victims.
Others who spoke at the meeting included FBI Special Agent Andrew Waltz, whose duties including investigating hate crimes cases; Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney for External Affairs Wendy Pohlhaus and the Justice Department’s conciliation and community relations official Suzanne Buchanan.
“We understand that there are times when you have critiques of our office, when you have questions,” Liu told the meeting. “We don’t let that stop us from coming out here,” she said. “And you will see us continue to come out here and listen to what you have to say.”
Liu’s appearance at the hate crimes meeting took place less than a month after news surfaced that her boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ordered federal prosecutors earlier this year to review seven murders of transgender women in locations across the country to determine whether they should be prosecuted as hate crimes under federal law.
LGBT rights advocates had mixed views on Sessions; action, with some praising him for focusing on the alarming number of murders of trans women of color in the U.S. Others cited his and the Trump administration’s policies rolling back discrimination protections for trans people put in place during the Obama administration would have an overall negative impact on LGBT people.
— Lou Chibbaro Jr., Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBQ Media Association.