Days after an attacker allegedly told a man he had stopped in “the wrong neighborhood” to get gas, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he wants to “take a deep breath” before deciding whether to prosecute the case as a hate crime.
Hate crime convictions in Louisiana enhance a felony sentence by up to five years, but authorities say it can be difficult to prove a crime was motivated by a suspect’s bias.
“There are just so many things that are not known right now,” Moore said of the Sunday night attack.
“I really want to sit down and talk to the family and read all of the police reports before I can make an adequate decision based on actual facts — not those that are perceived or in the press — and compare them against what the statute is.”
Police were still trying to determine Wednesday whether Donald Ray Dickerson and two other suspects will face additional charges in the attack, which happened about 11 p.m. at the Chevron station on Scenic Highway in north Baton Rouge.
Dickerson, who is black, is accused of knocking a 41-year-old white man unconscious after telling him he was “in the wrong neighborhood and he was not going to make it out,” according to an affidavit of probable cause.
The unidentified victim was hospitalized with a broken eye socket and broken nose among other injuries.
Dickerson, 41, was booked with second-degree battery, and his bail was increased from $50,000 to $55,000 on Wednesday after he was given a new count of failing to properly register as a sex offender, jail officials said.
Moore has said he is considering charging Dickerson as a habitual offender, which could carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
Two other suspects, Devin Bessye, 24, and Ashley Simmons, 22, allegedly struck the man’s wife and 14-year-old daughter. Both were issued summonses for simple battery, a misdemeanor.
Baton Rouge police have contacted the FBI about the case, and Moore said federal officials have “taken a look at it.” An FBI spokeswoman in New Orleans declined to comment.
The assault has prompted scores of online comments on news sites and social media, including many from people questioning the police officers’ decision not to book Dickerson with a hate crime.
Lt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman, has said investigators did not feel there was probable cause for that charge.
Moore said he finds the public outcry encouraging, adding it shows “people really are concerned.”
“What it tells me is that this offense is not only an offense against this man and his family, but it’s an offense against the community,” Moore said.
Under state law, a hate crime occurs when a person selects a victim “because of actual or perceived race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry ...”
The statute applies to a wide range of crimes, including second-degree battery, the charge Dickerson faces.
An FBI hate crime manual for law enforcement notes an “important distinction” must be made in reporting hate crimes. Just because a suspect is biased against a victim, the manual says, does not necessarily mean a hate crime has occurred.
“Rather, the offender’s criminal act must have been motivated, in whole or in part, by his or her bias,” the manual states.
A witness to Sunday’s attack, Mykeisha Henderson, has said the assault began with Dickerson teasing the victim about wearing a pink shirt.
She said she did not recall hearing any remarks from Dickerson about the white man being in the “wrong neighborhood.”
Interviews and court records show hate crime is an exceedingly rare charge in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Kelly said police have only used the charge three times since 2010.
But hate crimes often go unreported, according to federal government reports.
LSU sociology professor Edward Shihadeh said there may also be differences in reporting among jurisdictions due to varying administrative practices.
“In some places, you practically have to burn a cross on your lawn before you get charged with a hate crime,” Shihadeh said. “In other places the threshold is much less.”
Prosecutors decided not to pursue the most recent hate crime charge filed by the Baton Rouge Police Department.
Marco D. Eubanks, 25, was booked in early April with indecent behavior with a juvenile, obscenity and hate crime after he allegedly exposed himself to a group of children at an apartment complex.
The responding officer noted that only four of the complex’s approximately 80 tenants were not Hispanic, and claimed that Eubanks identified this location to commit these offenses specifically because of the “perceived race of the victim,” according to an affidavit of probable cause.
This month, however, prosecutors charged Eubanks with two counts of felony obscenity. Moore, the district attorney, said he was not familiar with the case late Wednesday, but he noted generally that hate crimes can be difficult to prove.
Advocate staff writer Robert Stewart contributed to this report