Defense seeks dismissal of hate crime in U.Md. murder, cites First Amendment

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for the former University of Maryland student charged with murder and a hate crime in the stabbing of a black student who was visiting the College Park campus, have filed a motion seeking dismissal of the hate charge, claiming it violates their client’s First Amendment rights.

Sean Urbanski, now 24, is charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime that resulted in a death, in the killing of U.S. Army Lt. Richard Collins III, who was 23 when he died on May 20, 2017.

In their motion, which was filed last week but only appeared in court records Tuesday, Urbanski’s attorneys, William Brennan and John McKenna argue the “charge violates the First Amendment by impermissibly prohibiting or criminalizing protected speech.”

A Prince George’s County judge postponed hearing arguments Tuesday whether racist cartoons and posts in a now-deleted white supremacist Facebook group can be used in the prosecution of Urbanski.

In their motion, Brennan and McKenna write under Maryland’s hate crime statute “only speech actually connected to the offense should be used as evidence of motivation.”

“Generalized evidence concerning the defendant’s racial views is not sufficient to meet this test,” according to the defense.

Lawyers for Urbanski have been seeking two separate trials for their client — one trial for first-degree murder, which in Maryland carries a top sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole, and one trial for the hate crime, which carries a maximum of 20 years behind bars.

During the rescheduled hearing, on Dec. 17, both sides will argue whether the hate count should be dropped, and if not, whether the murder and hate crime counts should be tried separately, and if the contested material should be heard by jurors.

Reasons for the delay were not discussed in court, but with a newly-elected state’s attorney and staff, and important prosecutorial decisions to be made, Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Hill ordered the hearing be continued just over a month.

Brennan and McKenna have argued in earlier motions that the judge should bar prosecutors from introducing “certain cartoon images and a group message survey extracted from his cellular phone,” as well as discussions on his now deleted “Alt-Reich: Nation” Facebook page.

Brennan has argued the postings “are particularly offensive, extremely prejudicial, highly inflammatory, irrelevant and not otherwise admissible.”

“There is genuine risk … the jury will be excited to irrational behavior concerning the alleged murder of Mr. Collins. The proffered evidence is more shocking than the underlying crime,” the defense argued.

In an earlier court filing, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks countered the evidence “tends to prove a material fact, that is, that the Defendant purposefully chose to stab Mr. Collins, over anyone else at the bus stop that night, because Mr. Collins is an African American.”

For a first-degree murder conviction, prosecutors must prove premeditation, but not motive. However, jurors may consider motive in determining guilt or innocence, or choosing between first-and second-degree murder.

“Motive is an essential element that the State must prove in order to secure a conviction under the hate crime statute,” Alsobrooks wrote.

Prosecutors have not revealed the specifics of evidence gathered the could prove Urbanski is a white supremacist.

Alsobrooks said the contested digital data “elucidates a statement uttered by the defendant just before he stabbed Mr. Collins.”

Thus far, documents only say Urbanski told Collins: “Step left, step left, if you know what’s good for you.”

Collins, a Bowie State University student who had been recently commissioned as a U.S. Army second lieutenant, was killed as he and two friends waited for an Uber at a bus stop at 3 a.m.

Sources have told WTOP surveillance video captured the killing. In addition, Urbanski’s blood alcohol content showed he was legally drunk.

Urbanski’s lawyers, Prince George’s County and federal prosecutors, as well as the FBI, have all declined to say whether a determination has been made about whether federal hate charges will be filed. In certain cases, federal hate crimes could make a defendant eligible for capital punishment.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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