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Con: Intent plays a role in defining a hate crime

By BY SONNY LONG - SLONG@VICAD.COM
Nov. 15, 2009 at 5:15 a.m.
Updated Nov. 16, 2009 at 5:16 a.m.

Metal frames, lights and switches were damaged beyond repair after someone toppled over a lighted Christmas display in Cuero's Christmas in the Park over the weekend.

Simply because a holiday display is vandalized doesn't necessarily mean that a hate crime has been committed, according to some who help organize and set up Cuero's Christmas in the Park light event.

Although outraged by the crimes against the local exhibits, Mary Polansky doesn't think the Cuero crimes are hate crimes, and sees vandalism itself as a quest for power.

"I think vandalism is committed by someone who is very insecure," said Polansky. "It helps them to feel they are powerful. It's really not a hate crime. It's more a crime of trying to gain power and a lack of respect."

For vandalism against a holiday display to be classified as a hate crime would take some legal proceedings, said Lisa Graybill, legal director, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

"The vandalism itself is a crime against property, but you have to look at the statute and Texas law says it can be. A judge would need to make an affirmative finding based on the evidence," Graybill said.

Michael Sheppard, district attorney for DeWitt, Goliad and Refugio Counties, said another factor would play a role in determining whether a hate crime has been committed.

"Hate crimes are basically subject to intent," said Sheppard. "If the intent is hatred of a particular group, then a hate crime could become a possibility."

It's that intent that has Cuero holiday light display supporters thinking that their case is merely kids being mischievous. According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, nearly two-thirds of all known perpetrators of hate crimes are teenagers or young adults.

Christmas in the Park committee member Tony Allen, a retired police officer who was once Cuero's police chief and now serves on the city council, doesn't think the Cuero vandalism was a hate crime.

"I think ours was a crime of opportunity that maybe started out as a challenge or dare and turned into something more," said Allen.

Polansky pointed at additional evidence that the Cuero vandalism was not a hate crime.

"They did not touch the nativity scene or the cross across the lake, and there are lights on both of them," she said.

Allen, like many others, was upset not only at the damage of the holiday-related exhibits, but particularly at the destruction of the American flag light display.

"I would hate to think that we have some young people in Cuero who would destroy that flag, because it was a flag. I hope it was because it was the tallest thing out there and would make a big splash," he said.

Related story: Pro: 'Taking Christ out of Christmas

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