Will Tulsa shootings be considered a hate crime?

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By Mallory Simon, CNN

(CNN) — Police, officials and residents are horrified by the shooting deaths of three African-American men, allegedly by two white men, in a predominantly black area in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But authorities will not say whether they believe the shootings were a hate crime.

Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 33, are charged with three counts of murder and two counts of shooting with intent to kill in connection with last week’s shootings, which also wounded two people.

Alvin Lee Watts and Jacob England

A day before the shootings, a post on England’s Facebook page said it was the second anniversary of his father’s death “at the hands of a f***ing n****.” CNN’s Jason Carroll reported that officials are looking into the posting, which may indicate that he never got over the fact that his father was killed by a black man.

A post in which England said it was time to get ready for another funeral is also under investigation.

But Tulsa City Councilor Jack Henderson said that if the shootings are shown to be racially motivated and the suspects are not charged with a hate crime, the community will be upset.

“They’re going to be shocked, surprised,” he added.

Henderson said he has dealt with civil rights issues for a long time. And Tulsa has a history with racial tensions, which is perhaps why residents were so afraid after the killings. The city of about 400,000 was the scene of a 1921 race riot – considered one of the worst in the nation – that destroyed the famed Greenwood District, a wealthy enclave known as the black Wall Street.

“(For seven years, I was) NAACP president in this town, and I think I know pretty much a hate crime when I see it,” Henderson said, adding that he thought this was a clear hate crime.

Others say that is all in the past, and Tulsa is not the town it was before. They hope this crime doesn’t change the perspective on the town, which the mayor said has made great strides.

There remains a strong a sense of community outrage, given the nature of the killings and the city’s history. Still, police said they would not go so far as to officially declare the murders a hate crime.

Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan declined to discuss a possible motive Monday, saying the case was under investigation. He said he would hand over any information about the motives to the district attorney for a decision on filing additional charges.

Jordan added that the slur on the Facebook page might not be enough to add hate crime charges, because it referred to the person who killed England’s father, not the victims of the weekend shootings.

“The hate crime laws stipulate that there needs to be hate speech or materials that relate to the crime,” Jordan said. “The suspects reportedly didn’t use racial slurs at the time.”

When asked about the Facebook postings and whether that would qualify as hate speech, the chief said, “it may not, because he was talking about the man who killed his father” and not about committing a crime or the victims.

Jim Finch, the head of the FBI’s Oklahoma office, said Sunday that it was premature to talk about hate crimes.

Jordan says the hate crime law was designed to give stiffer penalties in lesser crimes, like vandalism or assault, when they are motivated by hate. But in this case, with capital murder charges, the suspects would faced a tough sentence if convicted.

CNN’s Jason Carroll and Ross Levitt contributed to this report.

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