Samuel Goldberg has been a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney for 20 years. Prior to that, he was a New York state prosecutor. He has published various articles regarding the practice of criminal law and frequently provides legal analysis on radio and television, appearing on outlets such as the Fox News Channel, Court TV, MSNBC and The BBC Network. To speak to Sam about a criminal matter call (617) 492 3000.

Massachusetts Man Threatens Arson And Is Sentenced In Hate Crime

Sometimes, as we look across the globe (the round one, not the newspaper), we are appalled at the hatred and inhumanity that we see.

Why, just look at the recent matter in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik is grabbing his 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) by his various statements after his horrendous twin attacks of hatred in Oslo. The death toll? Many. The reason? Racial hatred.

Now, the authorities are trying to get a handle on whether or not he acted alone. He seems to keep changing his mind.

Breivik is charged under criminal law with “acts of terrorism,” including an attempt to “disturb or destroy the functions of society, such as the government” and to spread “serious fear” among the population.

His explanation is that he “believes that he needed to carry out these acts to save Norway” and Western Europe from “cultural Marxism and Muslim domination.” He had wanted his case to be held in an open proceeding. Most believe that this was so that he could further publicize his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ideas.

In the words of Rodney King, we think, “Can’t we all get along?” Then we think…why can’t the rest of the world be more civilized…like us?

And then…we are forced to remember that racism and hatred are still alive and well and living here. Not so long ago, a man was convicted for his attacks which included burning down a church because the congregation was comprised of African-Americans. We often hear about attacks on graveyards because the graves are filled with Jews.

Today, the Globe (the paper, not the round one) tells us about Jeffrey Smith (hereinafter, the “Defendant”), a 46-year=old Massachusetts man who has pleaded guilty to sending letters threatening to burn black churches and NAACP offices in three states. Specifically, the targeted seven predominantly black churches and four NAACP offices were in Cambridge, Roxbury and Medford in Massachusetts; Providence, R.I.; and Charlotte, N.C.

And what was the reason for these threats of arson?

Well, it seems that the Defendant does not like the fact that African-Americans are currently leaders in our Commonwealth and in our country. His letters apparently indicated that he didn’t like African-Americans or minorities as his office supervisors “nor I like them as President of the United States.”

Bad timing, I suppose. Better it should be a couple hundred years ago when they were slaves who’s families we could tear apart at will at auction.

The Defendant was sentenced to 15 months in prison…which was basically “time served” because he had been incarcerated while awaiting trial. After sentencing, the Defendant was released to the custody of the Department of Mental Health .

Attorney Sam’s Take On Hate Crimes

Let us be clear on the law here.

While Americans allegedly have the right to “free speech”, there are limits. There have to be in order to have any kind of organized society.

Even an experienced criminal defense attorney has to admit that.

If you yell “Fire!” as a clever little joke in a crowded theatre and people get trampled, you are liable. On the other hand, if you call someone a bad name and he or she smacks you…unless you are bullying them…that person is guilty of assault and battery and you are not guilty of a crime.

However, the situation changes a bit if you say what you say out of racial (or other protected class of people) hatred. No, you are likely not to be arrested for calling someone a racial epitaph per se, but you may find yourself charged with the extremely broad “disorderly conduct” .

Content, particularly when it reflects something like racial hatred, can change whether you are charged and for what charges you are awarded.

In Massachusetts, as well as most other states, the category of “hate crimes” can cast a darker shadow on the actual criminal action you are alleged to have committed. If I hit you simply because I do not like you, that is one thing. If I do it because you are part of a minority group that I particularly do not like…that is considered worse.

In the Defendant’s case, I would venture to guess that if he actually had committed the race-related arson, he would have received a sentence that exceeded the 15 months. However, he was apparently charged with merely making the threats.

Threats to commit a crime are crimes in and of themselves. Of course, making the threats because of bigotry is considered worse…and will be treated as such by the criminal justice system.

To view the articles upon which this blog is based, please go to http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/07/26/mass_man_sentenced_for_threatening_black_churches/ and http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2011/07/26/norway_terror_suspect_says_he_had_help/?page=full

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