Federal law defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
Hate crimes laws punish actions rather than thoughts or beliefs. While abhorrent, hate in and of itself is not a crime — and the National Council on Disability (NCD) is mindful of the importance of protecting free speech and other civil liberties. But when a crime has been committed because of hate, it deserves a swift, decisive and appropriate response. Hate crimes deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
On Monday, June 10, the mother and godmother of 14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis, his caregivers, attempted to kill the autistic teenager with an overdose. When the attempt to poison Alex didn’t achieve the desired result, his killers tried again, repeatedly, eventually stabbing him. No one knows exactly how long it took – several hours by police estimates – but in time, they succeeded.
Why was Alex Spourdalakis killed? The perpetrators, who have since confessed and been arrested, admitted Alex’s death was not a crime of passion. It was planned at least a week in advance. And it was motivated by Alex’s disability. Because Alex Spourdalakis was autistic.
As we have done several times beginning over a decade ago in 2000, NCD renews its call for the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work with civil rights, community and disability groups to ensure that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act be diligently applied in the prosecution of those who injure adults and youth with disabilities with increased urgency as alarming incidents such as these seem to increasing both in regularity and severity.
In recent years, as has often been the case in similarly horrific deaths of people with disabilities caused by family members or caregivers, many in the news media have attempted to make sense of this tragedy by either excusing Alex’s murder or even sympathizing with his killers – either by citing the difficulties of raising a child with a disability or the need to improve the quality and availability of services. The issues should not be confused. Alex Spourdalakis did not die because of lack of services, or because living with or raising a child with a disability is difficult. Prior to murdering him, Alex’s mother refused services offered to her by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. No, Alex Spourdalakis was killed; killed by those entrusted to care for and protect him.
NCD urges the FBI to prioritize and investigate crimes demonstrating clear hostility toward individuals on the basis of disability and for local and federal prosecutors to pursue robust prosecutions of hate crimes against persons with disabilities. Evidence suggests that the tragic death of Alex Spourdalakis is one of these instances and it deserves to be investigated as such.
To do otherwise sends the message that the short life of Alex Spourdalakis was worth less than the lives of other children and reinforces the notion that killing one’s child if they are disabled, while regrettable, is understandable. This way of thinking should not go unchallenged, and the fervor with which we investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against people with disabilities should not be diminished.
Equal protection under the law insists that we can, we must, do better.
On behalf of the National Council on Disability,
Jeff Rosen, Chairperson