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D.A. says he has no workable hate crimes laws in his arsenal

SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, a man was charged with attacking two Hispanic men at random, allegedly targeting them because they are Mexican.

But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he didn't consider charging the case as a hate crime because he said he doesn't have that option.

"I don’t have a workable hate crimes statute in Utah," he said. "In Utah, we have a facade of saying we have a hate crimes statute. But it's impractical and unusable by prosecutors."

Under Utah state law, only misdemeanor crimes can be charged as a hate crime.

On Friday, Alan Dale Covington, 50, who is homeless, was charged in 3rd District Court with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, aggravated assault and possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, third-degree felonies, plus misdemeanor drug charges.

On Nov. 27, Covington walked into Lopez Tires, 1621 S. Main, stating he was "going to kill someone" before swinging a "four-sided metal pole," charging documents state. A daughter and sister of the victims said Covington uttered that he hates Mexicans and was there "to kill a Mexican."

Luis Gustavo Lopez, 18, and his father Jose Lopez, 51, were beaten with a metal pole. Luis suffered a shattered cheekbone, among his many facial injuries, and had to have a metal plate installed. His father suffered a deep cut on his arm and bruises on his back from trying to shield his son from the blows after he was knocked to the floor, according to the family.

A GoFundme fundraiser was set up by a friend to help pay for their medical expenses.

Veronica Lopez, Luis' sister, believes the incident was absolutely a hate crime.

"There’s no other way to describe it. This was a hate crime," she said. "I don’t know how much more of a hate crime it has to be.”

But Gill said his hands are tied. Although some cases have been moved to the federal level where people have successfully been convicted for violating federal hate crime statutes, in Utah, there hasn't been a successful hate crimes conviction on the state level for 20 years because there is no viable law, he said.

"This is not a loophole, this is a void,” he said. "For the last quarter century we've been begging for some remedy."

The Covington case, Gill said, is one of "scores" of investigations his office comes across every year that illustrates how prosecutors "don't have a viable option."

"The fact we’re having this conversation in 2018 … it’s almost shameful for us that we can't seem to find a statutory remedy,” he said.

It's important for a community to prosecute hate crimes, Gill said, because a person who commits such a crime is also trying to send a message.

All hate crimes have three victims, according to Gill: the person directly affected by the attack, the group that person represents, and the community. A person who commits a hate crime is typically sending a message to a particular group, Gill said, and the attack has little to do with an individual person. If such a crime is committed without any measure of justice, then the entire community is victimized, he said.

That's why such crimes need to be met with a "measure of justice" in a "proportionate manner," according to Gill.

As an example, he said if there were a serial sexual assault suspect in the county who only targeted female missionaries because of their religion, he would not be able to prosecute the case as a hate crime.

In January, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, made another attempt to toughen the punishment for crimes targeting people because of their personal characteristics, including sexual orientation or gender identity. But the bill did not get anywhere this past legislative session, just as a similar bill failed to gain any traction in 2017. A hate crimes bill introduced in 2016 also failed.

This isn't the first time Gill has called out Utah's hate crimes law for its lack of teeth.

In 2014, two gay men were attacked outside a Salt Lake bar. Charging documents state one man suffered trauma to his head, a neck strain, a bruised rib and had several teeth knocked loose, while the other suffered a chin bruise and soreness to his face and neck.

The alleged attackers insulted the men about their homosexuality and called them by a gay slur, the charges state.

But when formal charges were formally filed in 2016, Gill said he was unable to charge the incident as a hate crime.

"Unfortunately, we do not have a hate crime statue that is workable for prosecutors," he said at the time.

Eric Levi Johnson, of Rock Springs, and Chad Ryan Doak, of Green River, were each charged in 3rd District Court in 2016 and warrants were issued for their arrests. But as of Tuesday, their warrants remained outstanding and the men have yet to stand trial.