Defense attorneys representing a white man who fatally stabbed a black man in 2017 have asked the court to remove the "hate crime" designation that was added to the defendant's charges. The defendant was a student at the University of Maryland at the time, while the victim attended Bowie State University.
A hate crime is one in which the victim was targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, national origin or sexual orientation. Defendants convicted of hate crimes typically receive harsher punishments than they otherwise would for the same offense against someone not targeted because they belong to one of those groups. In cases where death is involved, convicted defendants may end up receiving a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors say that the defendant's internet and phone history is highly relevant to the case because it illustrates his association with alt-right groups that support a racist agenda. They claim that the evidence shows the defendant's motivation and directly relates to statements he made the victim before the killing.
Defense attorneys say that the online history, which includes racist memes and other racially-charged material, is unconnected to the incident. They say charging him with a hate crime over his internet associations and online history is a violation of the First Amendment.
It may be some time before the judge in the case rules one way or the other, but this is the sort of case that should make everyone conscious of a few important facts. First of all, nothing you do online is ever really private. Investigators can -- and will, if motivated -- track down your entire internet history and comb through it looking for evidence of your guilt.
Second, you run the risk of your associations being held against you. While evidence of those associations may not always make it into court, the prosecution could seize on anything in your past that's controversial and make it an issue.
It's particularly important if you're charged with a violent crime to discuss potential problems with your attorney as soon as you start to think that something could be an issue. A criminal defense attorney can often find ways to keep evidence that's irrelevant out of court, but it pays to be prepared.