A Senate bill that could toughen punishments for hate crimes in Kansas got a chilly reception Wednesday morning, just two weeks after an Indian engineer was killed in a shooting at a bar in Olathe.
The legislation would double sentences in hate-crime cases. If approved, the law could be used for crimes found to be motivated by race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin and sexual orientation.
Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, introduced the bill before the shooting last month. He said “Olathe is only one in a tragic, ongoing stream of acts that are more emboldened for whatever reason and seem to be more and more so.”
Adam W. Purinton was charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder after he allegedly shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded Alok Madasani at Austins Bar & Grill. Ian Grillot also was wounded when he tried to intervene in the shooting.
Purtinton reportedly told the two Indian men to “get out of my country” before the shooting.
The shooting is being investigated by the FBI as a hate crime on the federal level.
The Olathe incident went mostly unmentioned during the hearing Wednesday morning.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, took issue with parts of the bill that he said would take discretion away from a judge and limit the basis for appeal.
“This is grandstanding,” Fitzgerald said.
He was also critical of the bill getting a hearing in the committee.
“How would this bill have prevented that shooting?” Fitzgerald said of the crime in Olathe. “Let’s let justice run its course and see what we have out of the trial.”
Haley is the lone sponsor of the bill and was one of only two people to testify in favor of the legislation.
Haley said the bill would make a hate-crime law “a little clearer (and) it makes it a little tougher.”
The doubled sentence included by the bill would not be subject to appeal, Haley said.
“That’s what we want is a tough hate-crime law,” Haley said. “Right now, it’s a little bit wishy-washy.”
Under Kansas law, a sentencing judge can already take into account aggravating factors like those included in the hate crime bill, including race, color and religion.
But Thomas Witt, executive director for Equality Kansas, said in written testimony to lawmakers Wednesday that the amended statute is rarely used. The mission of Equality Kansas, according to its website, is to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Other groups testified on the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU said in written testimony that because hate crimes appear to be on the rise nationwide, the legislation’s strengthening of a hate-crime law is “vitally necessary.”
But the organization also had issues with the bill, including that transgender Kansans would not be protected.
Haley said he was glad the bill had a hearing, but noted he had to struggle to make it happen this year.
“I’m not sure it’s a slam dunk out of this committee right now, just knowing some of the membership that we have here,” Haley said.