Brandon C. Lecroy, a 25-year-old white South Carolina man, has been arrested and charged with hiring a contract killer to kill his Black neighbor, hang him from a tree and burn a cross in his yard. After contacting a white supremacist group online (there are over 900), he put $100 down on a $500 job. He met with an undercover detective posing as the killer and gave him the down payment and a picture of his target, telling him “$500 and he’s a ghost.”
His motive for the murder plot is unclear. However, according to several news sources, this murder was just Act 1 of his overall plan; he apparently had other targets in mind. He also asked for a 9mm ghost gun —which would be untraceable.
When is a Crime a Hate Crime?
A murder is labeled a hate crime if the victim was harmed because he was gay or black or Muslim. Vandalism becomes a hate crime when a Swastika is plastered on the side of a Jewish synagogue. In both of these examples, the victim was targeted because of his demographic characteristics.
Hate itself is not a crime. Instead, a crime like murder, arson or vandalism becomes a hate crime when there's an added element of bias. As such, hate crime laws do not criminalize any new behavior; they increase the penalty for behaviors that are already against the law.
Did Brandon Lecroy Commit a Hate Crime?
Here's what we know about people who commit hate crimes, based on the most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. Sixty one percent are white. Most are young men, under the age of 25. Most act alone. Most are not officially with white supremacist or other hate groups, though many identify in some way and/or are familiar with their rhetoric.
So far, Brandon Lecroy seems to fit the profile – white, young (25) and acted alone. Also, while he doesn’t appear to belong to any organized white supremacist group, he reached out to one when looking for a murderer for hire. His instructions to his alleged murderer included hanging the target from a tree and burning a cross in his front yard; there’s not an American alive who would fail to recognize the dark history behind those requests.
The Psychology of Hate
We don’t know a lot about Brandon Lecroy’s personality or life history. According to a Facebook comment, his father died in 2013. Family members have alluded to mental health problems and his public defender has requested a psychiatric evaluation. Attempts to contact her have been unsuccessful.
The psychological profile of other hate crime offenders tells us what we might expect. Most come from an impoverished family background and are exposed to abuse and neglect. Filled with a sense of inferiority and powerlessness, they compensate by redirecting their frustration and self-blame onto others so as to feel better about himself. The degree of violence often depends on the motives. The most violent criminal behavior is likely a result of some combination of abusive childhood, brain dysfunction or injuries and very serious mental illness.
The majority (66%) of hate crime offenders are idle or adrift teenagers/ young adults who get caught up in peer pressure and a pack mentality and offend as part of a larger group. They are often led by a leader who is more deviant and disturbed and will go along rather than risk rejection or ridicule. The juveniles who initiate the hate acts are typically either looking for a quick thrill or a way to obtain status/bragging rights to their friends. The crimes can be opportunistic (harassing a disabled man after seeing him waiting at a bus stop) or premeditated (a group of teenagers pose as a gay man in an online dating forum, set up a “date” and then attack the victim when he shows up). This group can be dangerous – 70% of thrill-motivated hate crimes involve assault – but the majority of attackers’ animosity toward their randomly chosen victims can be relatively low, which at least offers the opportunity for rehabilitation.
Twenty-five percent of hate crime offenders are motivated by the need to protect their turf and defend their way of life. These hate crime offenders target specific individuals – the black family that has just moved into the all-white neighborhood, the Latino who has just been promoted at work, the white college student who is dating her Asian classmate - and justify their acts as keeping threats at bay. These offenders are not necessarily associated with any organized hate group and usually have no prior history of either crime or overt bigotry. Their reaction may have an economic basis–they fear losing property value or jobs. Sometimes they react instead to a symbolic loss of “turf” or “privilege”–for example, when “our women” begin to date “them” or when “they” come into our neighborhood and begin to “take over.”
The motive behind retaliatory hate crimes is revenge, whether in response to personal slights, other hate crimes or terrorism. These "avengers," who often act alone, target members of the racial, ethnic or religious group who they believe committed the original crime – whether or not the specific victims had anything to do with it. The thinking is, “You got one of us, we’ll get one of you.” After the 9/11 attacks, for example, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims rose by 1,600% even though, of course, none of the victims had anything to do with it. The thinking of these offenders is, “You got one of us, we’ll get one of you.”
The deadliest -- and rarest -- types of hate crimes are committed by mission offenders. These offenders consider themselves "crusaders" and their mission is total war against members of a rival race or religion. They join groups that share their racist views, write lengthy manifestos explaining their views, visit websites and steeped in hate speech and violent imagery. They often target symbolically significant sites and seek to do maximum damage. Mission offenders tend to have a paranoid flavor in their thinking, believe the system is rigged against them; this allows them to justify their violence against innocent people.
So, did Brandon Lecroy commit a hate crime? The jury is still out. I have not spoken to Mr. Lecroy and none of his family or friend agreed to be interviewed. Based on what we know about hate offenders, he is clearly not a thrill seeker and does not appear to be a mission offender; he doesn’t seem to be a member of any white supremacist organization and I have not been able to find any racist comments on social media. It is possible his motives might have been to defend his turf, to retaliate against perceived slights, or both; I’m sure time will tell.
Of course, people are complex and don’t always fit neatly into pigeonholes. Even if Lecroy’s desire for murder sprang purely from a personal vendetta, requesting a lynching and a burned cross clearly make a racist statement. Fortunately, someone had the courage to speak up before Mr. Lecroy ended an innocent’s life and lost the chance to change his own.