National News

Amid Calls for Hate Crime Charges in Kroger Killings, Prosecutors Say It’s Complicated

Posted October 30, 2018 7:42 p.m. EDT

One of the two black grandparents killed by a white gunman on Oct. 24 at a Kroger’s supermarket in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, was buried on Tuesday. A funeral for the other is scheduled for Saturday. In the meantime, calls continue to grow for hate-crime charges to be filed in their deaths.

But the state prosecutor in the case, Thomas B. Wine, said Tuesday that a hate crime is not a separate offense under Kentucky law. Rather, a judge can apply the label to a charge during the sentencing process. It could stop a convict from gaining parole or probation.

Witnesses said the suspect, Gregory Alan Bush, fatally shot Maurice E. Stallard, 69, inside the store, and then killed Vickie Lee Jones, 67, in the parking lot. He had no known connection to either victim, or to the store, and had tried and failed to enter a nearby black church moments earlier.

Bush was charged with two counts of murder and 10 counts of wanton endangerment. He is being held in jail with bail set at $5 million. A bystander told police that Bush said, “Whites don’t kill whites,” during the attack. Even without a hate crime charge, Bush could face the death penalty if convicted.

The killings came amid a swirl of headlines about hatred and violence across the country: the mailings, throughout the week, of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN, and then the massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Some criticized prosecutors for not quickly bringing hate crime charges in Louisville, the way they had in Pittsburgh.

“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he acted with hate toward these individuals because of their race,” Wine said in a phone interview. But he said that had little practical effect on the case at this stage.

The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, Russell M. Coleman, is also investigating the shooting and could bring federal hate crime charges. Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, called on Coleman to do so in a statement provided to The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Another wrinkle: The hate crime statute in Kentucky does not apply to murder, a fact that Fischer says he will work with the state Legislature to change. Wine expects to put the case before a grand jury on Wednesday, and could add or subtract charges at that time.

Jeannine Bell, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and the author of two books on hate-crime laws, said that the label sends a strong message.

“It communicates to the community that we understand why this crime happened,” she said.

Stallard was shopping at the Kroger’s with his 12-year-old grandson for materials for a school project, the police said. The boy was able to escape unharmed.

A longtime friend, Jesse Kinzer, said that Stallard “had nothing but a kind word for you.” They were part of a tight-knit community in Jeffersontown, a suburb that is a part of the Louisville metro area.

Stallard served in the Air Force and married his high school sweetheart, Charlotte, Kinzer said. He worked for decades in the security department of GE Appliances, and was known for hosting periodic get-togethers of old friends. They gathered in his honor on Monday.

Stallard was the father of Kellie Watson, the chief equity officer for Louisville. He is also survived by his wife, a son and four grandchildren, according to an online obituary.

Jones was a caring woman who had retired from a veteran’s administration hospital and helped care for her ailing mother, her nephew Kevin Gunn said.

She was a regular churchgoer who “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” he said. A vigil at her church on Saturday featured the colors pink and white, in honor of her struggle with breast cancer. She is also survived by children and grandchildren.

“We’re just managing,” Gunn said of his family. “We’re coping as best we can.”

Chanelle Helm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Louisville, said that the attack has had a chilling effect among black residents.

“The trauma is just so real,” she said. She added that the hate crime label would amount to a much-needed recognition of the persistence and toll of racist violence.

“It’s a truth-telling for us,” she said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, told reporters at the Kentucky Statehouse on Monday that the Pittsburgh and Louisville shootings both fit the definition of a hate crime, and said the attackers should get the death penalty.

If the attacks “aren’t the definitions of hate crimes, I don’t know what a hate crime is,” he said.