South Carolina dragging death fuels hate crime charge debate
NEWBERRY, S.C. — For the New Black Panther Party, it’s simple: A black man being shot to death by a white man and dragged for miles behind a pickup truck is a racial hate crime.
For local authorities and residents in this city of 11,000 in central South Carolina, it’s not so clear: The suspect and the victim were apparently friends, often eating lunch together at the turkey processing plant where they worked. Investigators say they spent several hours together before the gruesome slaying. And some speculate whether it started with an argument about a woman.
Federal authorities haven’t yet decided whether to classify the killing of Anthony Hill, 30, as a hate crime. State authorities are still investigating and monitoring news conferences by the black activist group, which plans a rally today on its insistence that Hill was killed because of his color.
“Certain types of killings, like being dragged behind a pickup truck, are vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow-type punishments,” said Malik Zulu Shabazz, president of the New Black Panther Party. “They’re inherently hate crimes. That’s our position — that any time a black person is dragged behind a pickup truck, automatically, there is a presumption that it is a hate crime.”
The investigation began early in the morning June 2, when a passing motorist saw a body on the side of a main road through Newberry. About 41 percent of its people are black, 53 percent white.
Officials say Hill, a former firefighter in the National Guard, was killed by a single gunshot to the head before he was dragged.
On the asphalt near his body, investigators noticed a dark, bloody stain, the end point of an 11-mile trail they traced back to the home of Gregory Collins. Noticing a piece of rope hanging from the back of a pickup truck, deputies knocked on the door of Collins’ rented mobile home. Collins appeared and then retreated, barricading himself in his home for several hours, only surrendering after being forced out with tear gas.
Quickly ar rested and charged with Hill’s murder, the 19-year-old white man has been held in isolation in the local jail, and his bail has not been set. His public defender hasn’t commented.
State police and the FBI arrived to assist Newberry County sheriff’s deputies with the investigation into whether the death was a hate crime, a determination that will be up to the U.S. Justice Department because South Carolina has no hate crime statute.
Shabazz, who says he has helped several families throughout the country affected by similar crimes, says he has all the evidence he needs to see that Hill’s death should be a hate crime.
“The only option is for the Justice Department to intervene here and to charge Mr. Gregory Collins with a hate crime,” Shabazz said. “Just because Anthony Hill was an acquaintance of Gregory Collins, to us it’s not material.”
Maj. Todd Johnson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, says the state murder investigation won’t be sidelined while federal authorities consider the possibility of a hate crime charge.
Solicitor Jerry Peace, Newberry County’s top prosecutor, says he hasn’t yet determined whether Collins could face the death penalty. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles says he’ll discuss the case file with Peace and other officials.
In a barbershop he owns a few blocks away, 37-year-old Keith Suber says he knew Hill and feels that Newberry’s black community isn’t outraged by the lack of a hate crime charge. He said he hopes the spotlight from the New Black Panthers may lead to community improvements for young people, like more public pools and recreation centers.
“My heart goes out to the young man and his family,” said Suber, who is black. “I think the community here just wants some justice overall.”
Bill Shull, 61, says he wants justice for the Hill family but doesn’t think it should come because of any intervention by a national group trying to rile tensions.
“Let the South handle their own problem,” said Shull, who is white, at his downtown hardware store. “There’s not going to be any insurrection in Newberry.”