Proving hate: Montgomery County prosecutors face challenge in grocery store attack

Montgomery County prosecutor John McCarthy says the man charged with knocking a shopper unconscious and stealing his keys in a Gaithersburg, Maryland, Giant grocery store could soon face an additional hate charge.

Thirty-year-old Eugene Thompson, who is also known as Michael Stewart, currently faces first-degree assault and strong-armed robbery related charges. As police and prosecutors weigh whether the crime was motivated by hate, McCarthy, the county’s state’s attorney, told WTOP that “an initial review seems to suggest that would be true in this case.”

Unlike other felony charges, including murder, in which prosecutors are not required to prove why a crime was committed, a hate crime conviction would require proving the motive.

“We have to prove that the assault occurred because the person who was the victim of the assault fit into a protected class, so it’s an additional element for us to prove,” McCarthy said.

Charging documents obtained by NBC Washington said the man told Montgomery County police that while shopping, he noticed a group of young men stealing fruit and throwing doughnuts. He asked them to stop, which led to a confrontation.

When the shopper took off his coat to defend himself, the suspects noticed his Star of David chain, and taunted him, according to the charging documents. One said, “Yeah, do it for Kanye,” an apparent reference to Kanye West, who has made several well-publicized antisemitic remarks.

McCarthy said there is no immediate rush to lodge a hate charge, in addition to the charges initially filed by police.

“We are now aware of the facts and circumstances, and are continuing our investigation; and before these matters are indicted, we can add any additional appropriate charges,” McCarthy said.

Thompson was ordered held without bond Thursday, until a preliminary hearing on Feb. 24.

Proving hate: How it can be done

In any case where a hate charge is being weighed, McCarthy said police and prosecutors often look at social media postings to see “what people might have said about a particular topic in the past.”

In addition, police and prosecutors investigate evidence of what the person said during the attack, including actions and utterances made on security camera video.

Another element, according to McCarthy: “Would the defendant have been in a position to know that the (victim) fit within a protected class?”

In 2020, Maryland lawmakers passed new legislation, three months after a judge threw out a hate crime charge against the white man convicted of fatally stabbing Black Army officer 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III on the University of Maryland campus.

At the time, Maryland’s hate crime law stated that prosecutors were required to prove specifically that the motive was hate.

“You no longer are required, in a hate crime to prove, that the exclusive motivation was because of the person being a member of a protected class,” McCarthy said. “It has to be part of the motivation.”

McCarthy said the current law is “common sense.”

“People act out because of multiple reasons, all the time,” McCarthy said. “This makes our ability to prosecute hate crimes much more consistent with real-world experience.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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