LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The man accused of driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville could face charges on top of second-degree murder.
James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, allegedly killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 19 others during Saturday’s protests.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the case could turn federal as domestic terrorism, even a hate crime.
The rally’s effects quickly traveled nearly 900 miles to the Natural State’s capital city, where many are calling the violence a hate crime.
“Even with it seeming obvious on its face that what happened there is based on race, even at that point, you still have to go to trial and prove it,” said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock.
Virginia has hate crime laws, however Arkansas is one of five that does not.
Lawmakers filed the state’s first hate crime bill in 2001. It fell in Sen. Elliott’s lap when she served as a freshman state representative in the judiciary committee.
Sen. Elliott said it ultimately failed because some did not think the law should apply to crimes motivated by someone’s sexual orientation.
More than a decade later, the now veteran lawmaker co-sponsored a similar piece of legislation with Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, this year to create an enhanced sentence for hate crimes, but it died before making it out of committee.
“I think there are people who are just not convinced that there is such a thing as hate crimes,” Elliott said.
“If you start defining different punishments based on who is the victim instead of what is the crime then I worry we start saying individual A is less important than individual B,” said Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville.
However, Rep. Collins did support another bill involving enhanced sentences for a specific group, which did pass this session. It stiffens charges against offenders who deliberately attack law enforcement.
“That was one that I was willing to view as different because of what we’re asking those people to do and the level of targeting that’s associated with it,” Rep. Collins said.
But Sen. Elliott thinks they’re one and the same.
“You have a right to exist in your body, who you are with certain kinds of sacred beliefs, such as your religion, without being attacked for it,” she said. “It just hasn’t registered with many people how serious this issue is.”