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Parents of slain Army lieutenant urge Maryland to change hate-crime law

Mourners embrace prior to the funeral of Richard Collins III at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Md.

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

By OVETTA WIGGINS | The Washington Post | Published: February 11, 2020

The mother of Richard Collins III, the black Army lieutenant who was fatally stabbed by a white former University of Maryland student, begged lawmakers on Tuesday to broaden the state's hate-crime law so that no other mother "feels the pain I feel daily."

Gripping a tissue with one hand and forming a fist with the other, Dawn Collins told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that she did not know that the threshold in Maryland's hate-crime law was so high that their son's killer, Sean Urbanski, would not be convicted of it.

"You cannot imagine the shock and the dismay that my husband and I felt," Collins said, pausing to compose herself, "when the judge dismissed the hate-crime charge. It brought back images of the day when those two state troopers came to my home at 7 o'clock in the morning to tell us my son was murdered."

Collins and her husband, Richard Collins II, were joined by staff from the Office of the Prince George's County State's Attorney, Bowie State University students, victim's rights advocates and anti-hate organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. They filled the committee room Tuesday to urge the General Assembly to amend the law.

"It's a pretty simple bill, but it's so meaningful," Prince George's County State's Attorney Aisha Braveboy, a Democrat, told the panel. "In seeking justice we use the tools that you provide us, the law ... so that we can seek justice for families. ... When the law is not sufficient to provide that justice we believe it is our duty to ask for changes."

Urbanski was convicted in December of first-degree murder for stabbing Collins, 23, who had just received his military commission and was about to graduate from Bowie State University. But Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. dismissed the hate-crime charge against Urbanski, saying prosecutors had not met their legal burden of showing that the 2017 killing was motivated solely by racial hatred.

Prosecutors said Urbanski bypassed two other people — a white man and an Asian woman — at a bus stop near the University of Maryland campus and attacked Collins because he was black.

They produced a record of Urbanski's history of racism, including evidence on his phone that he had joined a white-supremacist Facebook group called "Alt-Reich: Nation" and downloaded several racist memes that demeaned African Americans and other minorities and endorsed violence against them.

But Urbanski's attorneys argued that Collins was attacked instead of the others simply because he was the only one to engage Urbanski when he declined to step aside. They said Urbanski acted on an alcohol-fueled impulse.

Leaders of anti-hate groups and prosecutors said Tuesday that it is increasingly difficult to bring hate-crime charges against perpetrators because the laws are written too narrowly.

"Requiring prosecutors to prove that hate or bias was the sole motivating factor underlying a crime is an extremely high standard that gives hate-crime offenders an easy defense," said Meredith Weisel, the senior associate director at the ADL Washington D.C.

After the dismissal, Braveboy and Collins's parents vowed to push for changes in the law.

The bill, which is being called the 2nd Lieutenant Richard Collins Law, allows a person to be charged with a hate crime if they were motivated "in whole or in part" by another person's race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or national origin, or because another person or group is homeless.

Similar language is used in hate-crime laws in California, Tennessee and Wisconsin, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Sen. Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George's, likened the hatred that led to Collins's murder to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls and the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

"We are seeking today to move forward on the right side of history," she said.

Attorney Kurt Wolfgang, the executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, said the current statute makes it nearly impossible to bring a charge and get a conviction.

Before the panel of lawmakers, he wondered aloud what case would proceed under the current law. "Someone writing a manifesto perhaps immediately before they committed a crime," he theorized. "Or someone making a videotape stating their sole intentions to commit this offense on the basis of race or religion or sex or whatever the case may be? It's not going to happen. ... There has to be a relaxation in the standard."

After testifying, Dawn Collins left the committee hearing room and embraced Krystal Oriadha, the founder of LGBTQ Dignity Project, who had cried as she testified about encountering bias and hate.

"Don't ever let anyone silence you," Collins said as she wrapped her arms around Oriadha.

Dawn and Richard Collins II urged Maryland lawmakers to broaden the state's hate crime law during a meeting in Annapolis.
OVETTA WIGGINS/THE WASHINGTON POST