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Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen.

Anatomy of a Colorado Hate Crime

We deconstruct how to successfully prosecute a bias-motivated crime in Denver.

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Ryan Austin Lee. Photo courtesy of File Photo.

A. According to police documents, on March 2, 2018, Ryan Austin Lee attacked two Latino men who were sitting in a parked car near Garfield Lake Park in southwest Denver’s Westwood neighborhood. Lee reached through the passenger side window and punched the passenger. Both men exited the car and began walking away, but Lee grabbed the driver, threw him to the ground, and began kicking his head while yelling racist epithets [1]. The driver tried to protect himself with his arms until the passenger and others stopped Lee.

[1] This was not the first time Lee had lashed out because of someone’s race. In 2017, he chased a mixed-race family around the same park while wielding a hammer and verbally assaulting them with racist language. He pleaded guilty to menacing and was on a deferred judgment when he attacked the two men in 2018.

B. The Denver Police Department (DPD) was not made aware of the attack until several days after it happened. The passenger, who’d had unpleasant interactions with the police before, feared his allegations would be ignored. Upon seeing his injuries, an acquaintance persuaded the man to report the incident. (Because of his immigration status, the driver did not report the crime [2].)

[2] The Denver District Attorney’s Office does not report victims or witnesses to immigration authorities. That doesn’t guarantee, however, that immigration authorities won’t show up at the courthouse when they are testifying, which presents a predicament for some victims.

Photo courtesy of Denver Police Department

C. After an officer took the passenger’s statement, the case was passed to a detective experienced in bias-motivated crimes. At the time, that detective was part of the Domestic Violence Unit, but this past spring, the DPD introduced its Bias-Motivated Crime Unit [3]. The unit’s investigative branch, headed by Sergeant Anthony Parisi, houses two detectives and collaborates with a civilian outreach coordinator to foster relationships with communities that are often targeted with hate crimes. “We see the value and importance of building a level of trust with the community,” Parisi says. “Hopefully that resonates with those who are feeling marginalized or not heard or are not wanting to report out of fear.”

[3] The new unit also includes the Citywide Impact Team, which works closely with residents in neighborhoods often affected by hate crimes to better understand their particular concerns and help address them. DPD’s longstanding Victim Assistance Unit also provides resources to victims and can help them navigate what can be an emotional process.

D. On March 9, 2018, the state of Colorado issued an arrest warrant for Lee. The charge: bias-motivated crime (in this case, a class 5 felony). Denver also has a bias-motivated crime ordinance. The city’s law functions as a punishment enhancer—meaning the crimes come with more severe penalties [4]. There are also federal hate crime laws. The DPD and the Denver District Attorney’s Office work together to determine under which law it makes the most sense to bring charges [5].

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[4] Often the state statute comes with more severe sentencing than the Mile High City’s ordinance, although the Denver City Attorney’s Office has filed 12 bias-motivated cases since 2017.

[5] Compared to those in other states, Colorado’s law ranks “pretty well,” according to Scott Levin, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Mountain States region. Gender is the only category that’s not included (although a 2005 amendment to the definition of “sexual orientation” protects transgender individuals). That means if a woman is attacked on the basis of her gender, it does not qualify as a bias-motivated crime under Colorado law. Denver’s ordinance and the federal statutes, though, do include gender.

E. On March 14, 2018, Lee was arrested. The previous year, when he’d been taken into custody by a DPD officer who was of Hispanic descent, Lee became enraged. The officer kept her body cam rolling while Lee ranted in her back seat. “He used a lot of invective that was anti-Hispanic and anti-Latino,” says Deputy District Attorney Bilal Aziz, who, along with Deputy District Attorney Mollie Schultz, prosecuted the 2018 case. “Not only did you get the content of what he was saying, but also the intensity. That’s sort of your unicorn case [6]—when someone is shown to be exactly who they are.”

[6] Bias-motivated crimes are challenging to prosecute because the district attorney has to prove what’s inside a defendant’s head at the time of an attack. “Unless we can establish that the underlying crime was motivated by bias, we’re not going to be successful,” says Bree Beasley, one of eight Denver deputy district attorneys who specialize in hate crimes. The 2017 diatribe captured on tape, along with the menacing guilty plea, helped confirm that Lee was spurred by racial bias—as did the fact that he was screaming racial epithets while kicking the driver in 2018.

F. Lee was initially charged with just one count of assault in the third degree (a class 1 misdemeanor) and one count of felony bias-motivated crime [7]. But after Aziz and Schultz found the driver of the car, who agreed to testify, the Denver District Attorney’s Office was able to file another assault and bias-motivated crime charge.

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[7] A bias-motivated crime charge typically accompanies another charge, such as assault, menacing, or criminal mischief. Bias-motivated crimes associated with threats or damage to property are class 1 misdemeanors; crimes that result in bodily harm are class 5 felonies.

G. The trial began on April 15, 2019, and lasted three days. The defense based its case on the premise that the two victims had made up the assault charges in an attempt to gain temporary legal immigration status [8]. The jury didn’t buy it. It took jurors about two and a half hours to return a guilty verdict.

[8] The federal U Visa program allows crime victims who have endured physical or mental harm and who are helping law enforcement or government in investigations or prosecutions to remain in the country legally for up to four years.

H. In June, Denver District Court Senior Judge William Robbins sentenced Lee to five years in prison for each assault, to be served concurrently along with one year for the 2017 menacing charge (the deferred judgment was revoked when Lee was found guilty), which was also to be served concurrently. He will serve two years of parole when he gets out; if he commits any subsequent bias-motivated crimes in that period, he will once again be subject to aggravated sentencing [9].

[9] Because of the previous menacing case, the assault charges were subject to “aggravated” sentencing: Each one carried a maximum of six years. The menacing capped out at three. If the judge had required Lee to serve his sentences consecutively—a possibility in this case, since judges have some sentencing discretion in Colorado—he could have served up to 15 years.

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