On October 27, 2018, a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 people and injuring several others. The shooter, Robert Bowers, was arrested and charged with 29 separate charges: 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer, and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the 14 “crime of violence” charges represent what is more commonly known as “hate crimes.” Hate crimes are driven by bias against a victim’s race, religion, gender, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The hatred itself is not a crime but is an exacerbating factor in a criminal act. Hate crimes are prohibited by laws both at the federal level (by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act) and in most states. To prove a hate crime, the prosecutor must establish that the crime was motivated by the defendant’s bias. If the prosecutor can show that the underlying crime (assault, murder, etc.) was motivated by an illegal bias, the defendant’s potential sentence increases.
Unlike hate crimes, domestic terrorism is a crime in its own right. Terrorism may encompass things like building a bomb or providing support to a terror group. Domestic terrorism is an action that (1) is dangerous to human life and in violation of federal or state law, (2) is meant to intimidate or coerce either citizens or governments, and (3) occurs primarily within the U.S. Hate crimes may be difficult to prove (because they rely on proving a defendant’s motivation), but domestic terrorism may be even more difficult. The cause of action relies on establishing intent (specifically, the intent to cause a particular response), which can be especially hard in domestic cases. Successful terrorism prosecutions have often linked defendants to foreign groups. The decision to treat the synagogue shooting as a hate crime appears to demonstrate the federal prosecutor’s desire to condemn the severity of the crime without speculating about the defendant’s desire to intimidate or coerce.