Was the hate crime statute really created to allow redundant, “largely symbolic” prosecutions of people who have already been sentenced to life in prison or death? Not quite. It has more practical functions as well. For instance, it allows the Justice Department to prosecute someone after he is acquitted in state court. Under the Supreme Court’s “dual sovereignty” doctrine, that does not count as double jeopardy. The hate crime law also allows the Justice Department to prosecute someone who has been convicted in state court, meaning he can be punished twice for the same crime. And even if there are no state charges because the feds swoop in and take over the case, the defendant is apt to face a heavier penalty than he would under state law—with the notable exception of murder cases, because you can’t lock someone up longer than the rest of his life or kill him more than once.
In short, the hate crime statute is a handy tool for grandstanding prosecutors, letting them federalize any violent crime they claim was motivated by bigotry—even when the bigotry pits members of the same religious sect against each other. Officially the law does not punish people for their beliefs, which obviously would be a grave violation of the First Amendment. Rather it punishes people for choosing their victims “because of” their actual or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. But in practice, the law punishes people for their beliefs (by authorizing heavier penalties and serial prosecutions), because the opinions defendants have expressed about certain groups count as evidence that they deliberately selected members of those groups as victims. In this case, the Times reports, “analysts at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have concluded ‘with a high degree of certainty’ that Mr. Roof posted a racist manifesto online, which could be crucial to a hate crime prosecution.”