May 15, 2010

John called out the case in Phoenix involving the murder of a Latino man by his white neighbor the other day: Turns out the murder indeed involved Arizona's new immigration law:

Tension surrounding the passage of Arizona's tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration contributed to the slaying of an Hispanic man, allegedly shot by a white neighbor, a representative of the dead man's family said Friday.

Police and the family said the arrested man, 50-year-old Gary Thomas Kelley, allegedly directed racial slurs at 44-year-old Juan Daniel Varela before the May 6 shooting near their homes.


A probable cause statement filed May 6 said Kelley confronted Varela outside Varela's home and repeated racial slurs at Varela. Varela then apparently attempted to kick Kelley who then allegedly pulled out a revolver and shot Varela, police said.

A police statement said the two men had gotten into altercations several times in recent years. The family wants Kelley charged with premeditated first-degree murder, not second-degree murder, with a hate crime allegation, Galindo said.

"This family wants justice. They're asking that violence stop and that Gov. Brewer and other elected officials take responsibility for this hostile atmosphere they have created" by the immigration law and other legislation, Galindo said.

But Phoenix Police Department spokesman, Officer Luis Samudio, said Friday the shooting was not a hate crime, an allegation that under Arizona law could subject a person convicted of a crime to a stiffer sentence.

Robert Shutts, homicide bureau chief for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said the case remained under investigation and that the murder charge could be upgraded to first-degree and a hate-crime allegation added if evidence warrants.

Shutts wouldn't comment on whether the new immigration law was a factor in the case. But he said authorities weren't trying smooth over the case or minimize it, as the Varela family has alleged.

"That's not even close to the truth," he said. "We are treating this case with ... utmost seriousness." Kelley on Friday remained jailed in lieu of $750,000 bond, facing one count each of second-degree murder and aggravated assault.

The story has more details:

The alleged killer was yelling racial slurs seconds before he fired the shots that killed 44-year-old Juan Varela.

Varela was a third-generation American, yet his family claims he was called a “wetback” who was going to be sent back to Mexico by the man who murdered him. They claim it was a hate crime and the police are not doing their job. That is a charge the department denies.

A family spokesperson says, “We ask for justice, that’s what the family wants is justice.”

As someone reasonably knowledgeable about hate crimes, I can say that this case throws up all kinds of red flags. It is true that the mere use of ethnic slurs in the commission of a crime is not enough by itself to warrant hate-crime charges, but it is a potential piece of evidence in such a case. More significant is the fact that he had a prior history of agitation in the neighborhood, and it sounds as though that was racial too.

There certainly is plenty to investigate here. The Phoenix police should not be dismissing the potential for this to be a bias crime. And frankly, second-degree murder sounds pretty light, too: This guy went over to his neighbor's property with a gun and began shouting racial slurs at him. Those sound like powerful elements of premeditation to me.

There's some comfort in knowing, at least, that the case is not being handled by Joe Arpaio's detectives. But this case bears close watching.

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