Are victims falling through America's hate crime data gap?
By Nicole Krasavage and Scott Bronstein
Washington (CNN) -- Two hit-and-run deaths in rural Mississippi just a few miles apart highlight a disturbing problem about data collection on possible hate crimes.
Last summer, 61-year-old African-American Sunday school teacher Johnny Lee Butts was hit and killed by an 18-year-old white driver. The teen told Panola County Sheriff deputies he thought he hit a deer but the driver's two passengers said he steered straight for Butts. One passenger said he could see that Butts was black. The killing has sparked outrage in the local African-American community. Civil rights groups have demanded that police prosecute Butts' killing as a hate crime.
Nonetheless, prosecutors chose not to.
There was no evidence, authorities said, to suggest a racial motive. The driver was charged with murder. He has not yet pleaded in the case.
In another hit and run, 41-year-old African-American Garrick Burdette was found dead along a Panola County road in November 2009.
His mother, Ruby Burdette, says for three years she had heard nothing about any police investigation into her son's death until CNN began asking about the case.
CNN received no response after calling the Panola County Sheriff's department, but just hours after CNN's call, a sheriff's investigator drove to Ruby Burdette's house.
"He came in and said he was the investigator," she told CNN. "He told me he apologized for no one coming out before now. And he told me that the first investigators they had didn't do anything."
If police suspect Burdette's death was a hate crime, they're not saying. And even if Burdette's death turns out to be a hate crime, there's a chance it won't even be reported.
"The data sucks," said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the issue. "Hate crime data as the FBI reports is underreported by an ungodly amount."
In 2005, 2006 and 2007 there were zero hate crime incidents reported in the state of Mississippi, according to the FBI.
"States like California have thousands of hate crimes, and the state of Mississippi with its record of racial animus has none?" said Beirich. "It's ridiculous."'
Federal law has required states to collect hate crime data since the early 1990s. Congress has defined a hate crime as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation."
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