Hate Crime in Indiana?

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New Bloomington Alternative series to explore Aaron Hall murder

by Denise Travers

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NB: Read the original article in The Bloomington Alternative which ignited attention and controversy in the blogosphere around Aaron Hall's murder.
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Aaron Hall was a petty criminal with a long arrest record. He was a meth user and an alcoholic. Over the course of his life, Aaron had spent nearly 10 years in prison or in jail, in stints from a few months to a few years.

But, like the fortunate among us, Aaron nevertheless had people who cared deeply about him. His mother, Martha. His brother, Tom. His daughter, Dae Z Mae. His friends. His former lovers. There are many who can share tales of Aaron's generosity and kindness. Aaron’s humble Uniontown gravesite is lovingly festooned with flowers, award ribbons, cards and a lone cigarette; the grave bears no stone yet, just a simple aluminum marker. Terrifying visions of Aaron Hall’s spilled blood will remain in the memory of many – those who witnessed his beatings first-hand, and those who are haunted by their own terrible imaginations.

Regardless of his criminal status, regardless of his seemingly dissolute life, regardless of whether his murder was a hate crime or not – Aaron Hall did not deserve to die the way he did.

The online consternation over the lack of traditional media coverage of Aaron’s murder is disingenuous. DailyKos and Digg feature posts that are sensationalistic in their insincere commitment to the ‘magnitude’ of Aaron’s murder (and foster an environment which breeds hate and judgment as much as Crothersville itself – just read the comments). ... has compiled a growing list of blogs which have indignantly excoriated both the crime and the lack of media coverage. And yet, the fact remains: short of a few, early statements made by Aaron’s brother Tom in Jackson County media, no one has bothered to engage the Hall family in discourse; to travel to Crothersville; to taste the hopeless resignation of this small, dying town; to explore the depths and inconsistencies, contradictions and nuances of this case.

Until now. In upcoming posts, we at the Bloomington Alternative will be sharing what we've learned from our own investigation, including hours of exclusive interviews with Aaron’s family and friends. Our hope is to help demonstrate that, even in a stereotypically backwards, economically miserable and socially stunted small Indiana town, the conditions and circumstances of Aaron’s case and life are complicated. It is only possible to have a black-and-white perspective on this tragedy from a distance. When you get close, the provincial becomes intricate. The seemingly obvious becomes hazy. The logical becomes mystifying.

Was Aaron’s murder a hate crime? If you ask Gary Welsh of Advance Indiana, the answer is unavoidably affirmative. If you ask Bil Browning of bilerico.com, the answer is quite obviously a resounding, “no.” Each of these bloguments is compelling: Welsh argues that, since the accused confessed in police documents that their motivation for torturing and killing Aaron was an alleged gay advance Aaron directed at defendant Coleman King, it is specious and counter-productive to speculate anything but a hate crime in this tragedy. Browning, for his part, finds Aaron’s family’s contention (as well as popular perception in Crothersville) that Aaron was not gay to be an undeniable inconsistency which renders the hate crime allegation invalid.

How can so many people claim such ironclad certainty about Aaron’s sexual orientation? Are some proclaiming his heterosexuality to preserve a certain legacy for him? Are some simply reporting their truthful observations? If Aaron was gay, would he have told anyone? Isn’t it possible that Aaron was gay, and hadn’t even recognized or acknowledged it himself? If, like so many locals contend, Aaron was not gay, how does the tenor of his murder change? Are we to believe Aaron's own words on his myspace page, that he is a "Stone Temple Pilot looking for Alice in Chains?" (NB: Aaron's "own words" may be misleading, given that his myspace page seems to have been updated last week, over 2 months after his death.)

Indeed, all these questions point to an important distinction in reference to discussion of hate crimes: the perception of a person’s sexual identity may be just as inciting of violence to some as the real demonstration of a minority sexual proclivity. In truth, it is irrelevant to speculate on Aaron’s sexual orientation. Whether he was gay or not is immaterial: the defendants themselves, in sworn statements, invoked the "gay panic" defense. They are the ones who opened the door to questions of whether Aaron’s murder is a hate crime or not.

As ever, the truth – if we can ever know it completely – likely lies somewhere in between the extremes. Sources in Crothersville indicate that the circumstances of Aaron’s murder are significantly different than what has been reported in local media. They knowingly imply just how much can be concocted in 10 days – the length of time between Aaron’s death and the official discovery of his body in the garage of Terry Gray, deputy Jackson County coroner and father of Garret Gray, one of the defendants. They indicate that a sexual advance was involved -- not toward King, but toward his girlfriend. They state that – contrary to sworn affidavits – there were other witnesses of Aaron’s murder: indeed, some have indicated that the Gray household was something of a teen drug haven, and that at the time of the first punch to Aaron’s body, some number of other teenagers were present.

What lies in the conscience of these teenagers? Each of the Jackson County residents to which I’ve spoken has commented, independently and forlornly, about the wretched absence of anything constructive or fun for the youth to engage. A dearth of such luxuries as volunteer opportunities or civic engagement, a surprising lack of church-related youth activity, rampant poverty and drugs and a Footloose-like youth despair combine to make an environment which breeds antipathy and distance. What can be expected of youth whose futures are so bleak? If it is true that other teens and young adults witnessed the attack, how dead must their hearts be to be able to endure their silence?

The influence of power cannot be ignored, either. Hushed tones accompany the mention of certain names, and the ever-present buzz of fear has residents considering using false names or refusing, outright, to speak on record. In a town where so many cling to their personal salvation through Jesus Christ, the landscape of Crothersville, Indiana is ironically godforsaken. Most are afraid to go on the record, for fear that local law enforcement will remember the indignity and further abuse their power through false arrests, trumped-up charges, botched investigations and abject corruption. Each and every Crothersville resident willing to comment about Aaron’s murder has his or her own horror story about Jackson County. Many have had personal run-ins with the law. The stories of prejudice, intolerance and narrow-mindedness are legion. In a town the size of Crothersville, social capital is a powerful weapon. Everyone knows who wields the power. Everyone knows who the important families are. Everyone knows who to call to get meth. Everyone knows everyone’s family, history, darkest hours. You don’t cross those who are in power. Period.

And this is the real irony of Aaron’s story: if the Matthew Shepard Act (also known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act) had already been in place, Hall’s family could have sought federal assistance in the investigation. They could have relied upon federal examiners to carry out a more unbiased inquiry. They could have hoped that Aaron's brutal murder could serve the greater good -- that we all could learn about bias-motivated violence through an outsider's lens. Who ever could have thought that the senseless murder of a 64-inch tall man could have such a potentially powerful impact on federal public policy? The Senate has yet to vote on S.1105 -- could Aaron's death help provide justice in the future? No, the Matthew Shepard Act could not have prevented Aaron's murder -- but it could have helped reveal the true causes.

Because, the truth is this: it is in human nature to deceive, to evade responsibility, to hate. This simple fact colors Aaron's murder itself, the coverage (or lack thereof) of the crime, the presence or absence of local outrage in Jackson County, everything. Federal hate crimes legislation already exits. Could there be a more poignant example of the need to include sexual orientation and gender in its protections? Aaron Hall, indeed, is the poster child for inclusion of gay-motivated violence in federal hate crimes legislation, perhaps even moreso than Matthew Shepard. The conditions of Aaron's life, the facts and myths about his death – so much could have been discovered, were it that gays were as important as racial minorities, religious minorities and others who are already protected under federal law.

People always assume that hate crime laws are meant to foster sympathy for the victim, and will always be applied to vanquish a bigoted foe. But we must remember: hate crimes laws which include protections for sexual minorities could help us better understand LGBT hate crimes themselves. In Aaron’s case, it could have helped demonstrate the rampant mindset that a “gay defense” is – or at least can sometimes be – adequate justification to exonerate an allegedly-victimized attacker. Those Crothersville individuals with knowledge and evidence could have shared what they knew with law enforcement officials outside of their local jurisdiction, without fear of retribution.

A unique vindication of hate crimes legislation could occur if the additional investigatory power of the federal government helped to reveal that, sometimes, claims of hate-motivation in heinous crimes are flat-out lies. Hate crimes legislation does not necessarily have to be seen – or utilized – as a tool of advocacy. Even advocates get it wrong sometimes: shouldn’t our goal be to seek the truth, wherever she may hide?

This is a case where – if Congress and the President had the guts to include a criminally-neglected segment of the population into already-existing legislation – we all could have learned a great deal about human nature. Perhaps we could have come closer to a time when we can definitively say whether a crime was, or was not, a hate crime – for we could have utilized the opportunity to plum the depths of King’s and Coleman’s motivation. Did they murder Aaron because he was gay? Or because he made a gay advance? Or – perhaps even more frightening – did they just say that they murdered him because of a gay advance simply in order to gain the sympathies of like-minded local jurors and judges, who might be more willing to set them free if the “gay panic” defense worked? How dead must their hearts be to believe that claiming the “gay panic” defense would earn them points in others’ estimation?

Folks on the coasts may be loathe to admit it, but there are compelling lessons in human nature that will forever be bound to tiny Crothersville, Indiana. Aaron’s beloved have endured these lessons for decades, and still must carry the grief of a terrorized loved one. Though not cosmopolitan or even particularly humane, the grave truths stitched into the fabric of Crothersville cannot be denied or ignored. We hope you join us as we explore them, stitch-by-stitch, as we try to identify the lessons to be learned from Aaron Hall’s sacrifice.

Denise Travers is a citizen journalist/blogger, graduate student and 18+ year resident of South-Central Indiana. Email Denise at citizendlt@gmail.com.