Hate crimes

New York Charged Grafton Thomas With Attempted Murder for Assaulting Jews With a Machete. Why Are the Feds Prosecuting Him for the Same Attack?

A crime in Monsey leads to a redundant prosecution that hinges on the defendant's anti-Semitism.


Grafton Thomas, the suspect in Saturday's horrifying machete attack on Hasidic Jews in Monsey, New York, was arrested over the weekend and charged with five counts of attempted murder, a Class A-1 felony punishable by 15 years to life in prison, and one count of first-degree burglary, a Class B felony punishable by five to 25 years in prison. Yesterday he was charged with five federal hate crimes, each of which could result in a life sentence or the death penalty. A good question, rarely asked in cases like this, is why the federal charges, which are based on the same conduct as the state charges, are appropriate or necessary.

Thomas is accused of violating 18 USC 247, which makes it a federal crime to intentionally and forcibly obstruct "any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs" when "the offense is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce." That crime is punishable by "imprisonment for any term of years or for life" or by execution if it involves "an attempt to kill."

The criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Julie Brown notes that Thomas attacked people who were attending a Chanukah party, which included "lighting candles and reciting prayers" (the blessings said while lighting the candles), at a rabbi's home, which was next door to a synagogue and was itself considered a "place of worship." Thomas' violent invasion thus interfered with "the free exercise of religious beliefs."

Did he do so intentionally? Brown notes that the victims were "members of the Hasidic community and were, thus, easily identifiable as adherents to the Jewish faith." She also cites evidence discovered during a search of Thomas' home that seems relevant to his motive.

A handwritten journal included the statement that "the 'Hebrew Israelites' took from the 'powerful ppl (ebinoid Israelites),'" apparently a reference to the belief, promoted by the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, that African Americans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites, while Jews falsely claim that lineage. Thomas wondered in his journal "why ppl mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide." Brown says he "referr[ed] to 'Adolf Hitler' and 'Nazi Culture' on the same page as drawings of a Star of David and a Swastika."

The complaint also notes internet searches recovered from Thomas' smartphone. He searched for "Why did Hitler hate the Jews" on four occasions in November and December. He looked for "German Jewish Temples near me" on November 18, "Zionist Temples in Elizabeth NJ" and "Zionist Temples of Staten Island" on December 18, and "prominent companies founded by Jews in America" on December 27. The next day, Thomas viewed an article headlined "New York City Increases Police Presence in Jewish Neighborhoods After Possible Anti-Semitic Attacks. Here's What To Know."

The distinctive attire of Hasidim, Thomas' private musings about Jews, and his internet history all reinforce the idea that he targeted Jews qua Jews, as opposed to attacking people at random. Brown therefore argues that there is probable cause to believe he intentionally obstructed their religious freedom.

What about the requirement that "the offense is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce"? Brown notes that the 18-inch Ozark Trail machete used in the attack was made in China. The Justice Department believes that sort of tenuous connection to interstate or foreign commerce is enough to invoke federal jurisdiction in cases like this.

In short, Brown's complaint seems to include all the necessary elements to prosecute Thomas in federal court. Furthermore, those elements are different from the elements of attempted murder and first-degree burglary under New York law. That means the seemingly redundant cases probably would not be deemed to violate the constitutional ban on double jeopardy even if the Supreme Court had decided to abandon the "dual sovereignty" doctrine, which allows state and federal prosecutions for the same conduct even when the two levels of government define the offense in the same way. The Court has held that the same conduct—in that case, the illegal sale of morphine—can be charged as two crimes when the offenses include different elements.

But the fact remains that Thomas faces two prosecutions for the same actions: one in state court, where he faces up to life in prison, and one in federal court, where he also faces up to life in prison and could be sentenced to death. The New York Times reports that "the federal case is expected to take place before any state case." If Thomas is acquitted in the federal case—say, because the jury has reasonable doubt about his motive—he can still be tried in state court. Even if he is convicted in federal court, he can be tried again in state court and potentially face additional punishment, assuming his federal sentence falls short of life.

Thomas is accused of serious crimes, and there might be a rationale for federal involvement if there were any reason to believe that New York would not take them seriously, especially if the state's criminal justice system was rife with anti-Semitism. When Southern states let white racists get away with murder, federal prosecution was the only way to render justice and protect the civil rights of black people. But nothing like that is happening in modern cases where the Justice Department decides to prosecute violent criminals for hate crimes when they already have been charged under state law. It's not as if Dylann Roof, Robert Bowers, John Earnest, or James Fields would have escaped justice without federal intervention.

The Justice Department is making a statement when it gets involved in cases like these: not just that it is wrong to assault or murder innocent people but that it is especially wrong when such violence is motivated by bigotry. In making that statement, it goes beyond punishing people for their actions and begins to punish them for their beliefs.

While racist or anti-Semitic statements are protected by the First Amendment, they are indisputably relevant in hate crime prosecutions. Hence Grafton Thomas' anti-Semitic journals are an important part of the federal case against him, just as Dylann Roof's racist manifesto and Robert Bowers' anti-Jewish social media posts were important parts of the federal cases against them. The views expressed by such defendants could not be prosecuted as crimes in themselves, but in practice they lead to unequal treatment under the law, justifying additional prosecutions and enhanced penalties. Just as bigots should not escape punishment because the government shares their ideology, they should not receive extra punishment because the government abhors their ideology.

NEXT: L.A. Is About to Screw Up Legal Street Vending the Same Way It Screwed Up Legal Pot Sales

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  1. I’m opposed to the multiple jurisdiction double-jeopardy prosecutions but maybe the feds charged him because NY has the (Reason-endorsed) release-on-recognisance no-cash bail?

    1. Except attempted murder is not on the list of offences for those release-on-recognizance no-cash bails – his bail was set at $5 million.

  2. It’s a gross imposition on State police powers that really should not be happening.

    But Reason is too coy/cute for it’s own good. To say “federal prosecution was the only way to render justice and protect the civil rights of black people” yet somehow think that the Feds are going to leave it at that, and not further flex their antidiscrimination muscles is not simply shortsighted, it is denialism of the worst sort – coming as it does from an ostensibly libertarian publication.

    Foreseeable consequences, and all that.

  3. “the offense is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce”? Brown notes that the 18-inch Ozark Trail machete used in the attack was made in China.

    This is neither in nor affecting commerce. Government’s gonna government.

    1. Buy American!

    2. Yeah, my thought too. Any judge who’s more interested in actually upholding the law then in furthering his career would throw this out based on that.

  4. Maybe the often-inept feds got involved because often-inept NY would likely set him free before trial?

  5. Hate crime laws are unconstitutional.

    That being said it’s ironic that a clear case of a black on white draws a Reason article .

    Typically these laws are used as a weapon to prosecute the rather rare but highly publicized white on black crime.

    And law enforcement twists itself into a pretzel to declare clear black on white crimes not hate.

    Too much political pressure here.

  6. …why the federal charges, which are based on the same conduct as the state charges, are appropriate or necessary.

    So suddenly we’re all against federal prosecutors wetting their beaks?

    1. Well suddenly the “hater” is black
      It’s so much easier if it’s a white guy

  7. “…there might be a rationale for federal involvement if there were any reason to believe that New York would not take them seriously…”

    Which has exactly fuckall to do with what the Federal statute actually says. But I’m sure the people charged with enforcing them will give Sullum’s opinion it’s due consideration.

    Just say it – these Federal laws are, were, and always will be a bad idea. But Sullum isn’t about to go there.

  8. They shouldn’t be. What, you were hoping for some hypocrisy?

    1. Nope! We were ALL desperately hoping and praying that some mindless troll-bot (like Tulpa-Satan) would come here and troll us all with totally brainless bullshit threadshitting!!!

      1. So you did.

        1. (isn’t it awesome seeing Mary shit everywhere because it lost to me and its ego can’t fucking stand it lololol)

        2. I’m not returded, like Tulpa-Satan, Tulpa-Satan. YOU are, Tulpa-Satan! Get thee behind me, Tulpa-Satan!

          1. Cry more drama llama ahahahahahahahah

            1. It is NOT “ahahahahahahahah”, you moron! Every first grader KNOWS that it is “ahahaeeeehahaoooohahaaaahah, eee aaaah ooo, peee peee pah, ooo aaa aaa, wallah-wallah-bing-bong, as sung by a ding-a-dong”!!! Study UP on your baby talk, baby talker fucker upper!

              1. Ahahahahah drama llama can’t stop crying ahahahah Fressen die scheisse drama llama it’s right because you’re a drama llama Ahahahaha but you were wrong ahahahahaha

                I win again ahajaajjaajajaj

                1. Baby babbling contest WON by Tulpa-Satan! The attainment of a lifetime!

      2. Squirrelly, do you not understand that everyone here regards you as a complete idiot? So your jabs at the intellect of others is laughable at best.

        1. Your command of persuasive facts and logic is ASTOUNDING!!!

          Please send your resume, and another sample of your writings, along with your salary or fee demands, to ReasonNeedsBrilliantlyPersuasiveWriters@Reason.com .

          Have you written that email yet?!?! You are sitting on a GOLD MINE of writing talent! Get moving NOW! Don’t WASTE your precious talents, I BEG of you!

          1. You just proved my point.

            1. Meaning you STILL aren’t writing that email yet?!? What a WASTE of persuasive intellectual firepower!

              1. It’s a shame you haven’t killed yourself.

                1. Hey Shitsy,
                  I see you’re pimping for the Evil One yet AGAIN! So… HOW MANY people, so far, have you persuaded to commit suicide? Have ANY of these suicides brought you ANY long-lasting happiness, yet? If not, then WHY don’t you give UP your evil ways?
                  I really don’t care one way or the other, if you or anyone else believes that the Evil One is “real”, or metaphorical. “Machs nix” to me. What I WOULD like for you, and others, to understand, is that by obeying the “spirit of the Evil One” (whether “real”, or not), you make the Evil One real… Just like obeying (or praying to) the Spirit of Peace and Love, makes it real! Whether it is “real”, or not! Because it is VERY difficult (actually impossible) for me to go off and stab my neighbor in the back, needlessly, immediately after having SINCERELY prayed for peace!
                  On the flip side… By lusting for others (who think “wrong” thoughts, in Your Exalted View) to commit suicide, your spread hatred, destruction, and self-destruction. You’re PROUD of that?
                  Next time you’re “channeling” the Evil One in Your Self-Esteemed Mind, and dreaming up new-and-improved ways to encourage people to kill themselves, I would like for you to ask the Evil One the same simple question that I just asked you: Have ANY of the suicides that you have solicited and enabled, brought you ANY long-lasting happiness? We already KNOW that the answer is NO! An excellent working definition of evil is “the unquenchable thirst”! So why not give UP on your FAR-worse-than-useless, EVIL quests?

                  Evil Shitsy! Is THAT how you want to be remember, after the worms start crawling through your rotting flesh? Or your cremated ashes are thrown in the dump?

  9. “Why Are the Feds Prosecuting Him for the Same Attack?”

    The more Government Almighty agencies that can pass many various assorted different laws against the exact same thing (murder is outlawed by city, county, parish, tribe, church, mosque, Boy Scout Troop, PTA club, Lion’s Club, state, nation, continent, planet, solar system, galaxy, galactic cluster, and transdimensional alternate universe… THE MORE LAWYERS THAT GET TO PLAY IN THE SANDBOX, AND SUCK DOWN OUR TAX DOLLARS!!!

    Next question?

  10. “but in practice they lead to unequal treatment under the law”


    1. Returded, thread turder! Try hurder, turder!

      Do you recall the awesome enchanter named “Tim”, in “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail”? The one who could “summon fire without flint or tinder”? Well, you remind me of Tim… You are an enchanter who can summon persuasion without facts or logic!

      1. I recall you making a fool out of yourself playing spelling sheriff and fucking up “llama” lololol

        I won. Forever.

        1. You won the asshole-supreme, threadshitter extraordinaire contest, for now and forever! The one who can’t read and acknowledge web sites that prove Tulpa-Satan to be WRONG! (About German). Revel in your wrongness, egomaniac!

          1. Ahahah look at drama llama cry Ahahahahah you can’t stop ajahahahah

            I won

  11. The truly cynical side of me says the Feds are hedging their bets, just in case a NY jury decides not to put this asshole in a cage for a long time. But from what I have read in the media (yeah I know, don’t laugh), this guy is more than a couple cans short of a six-pack.

  12. Hate crimes should never be charged. Period. Even in heinous situations like this.

    If somebody attempted murder due to racial animus or for any other reason is utterly pointless.

    1. But it’s not a hate crime. It’s a ‘civil rights violation.’

    2. The reason for committing a violent crime certainly is relevant to sentencing. Part of the reason we prosecute criminals is to make the community safer. If two people commit the same crime, but for different reasons, then they may deserve different sentences in order to reach the same level of community safety. For example, someone who kills his spouse upon finding her in bed with another man is not the same as a paranoid schizophrenic who kills a stranger while off his meds, or a self-proclaimed white-supremacist who kills a minority person for fun.

      But all of this can be handled by the judge/jury during sentencing. You don’t need to stack on hate crimes.

  13. A black man who doesn’t like the Jews? Someone get Spike Lee on the phone.

    1. Jesse Jackson will take your call.

  14. Help me out here: where do Black and Jew rank on the current intersectional victim scale? And Black-Jew?

    1. Jews aren’t on the scale at all, they’re on the oppressor list and black males – unless they’re Muslim – are practically white. Oddly enough, it’s white males at the top of the victim list – as long as they claim they’re women.

      1. “Oddly enough, it’s white males at the top of the victim list – as long as they claim they’re women.”

        Unless they’re de-transitioning.

  15. Per this article, “Thomas is accused of violating 18 USC 247, which makes it a federal crime to intentionally and forcibly obstruct “any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs”… Too bad this could not have been applied to certain law enforcement agencies by the Rastafarians in the 1970s. They kept getting busted for marijuana, which was a sacrament to them.

  16. Ozark Trail? That’s Walmart’s brand. I wonder if they are going to stop carrying machetes and knives now?

  17. Yesterday he was charged with five federal hate crimes, each of which could result in a life sentence or the death penalty.

    All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.

    Hence, hate crimes.

  18. Sullum also argued against hate crime charges against Robert Bowers. However, there was hardly any protest againts the 30 federal hate crimes leveled against the Charlottesville rammer. Seems Reason only has a problem with hate crime laws used when the victim is Jewish. Which isnt surprising given their increasingly progressive bent.

    1. Yeah, championing bad laws when “bad guys” are hit by them is a terrible, terrible idea. Because bad guys, frequently, won’t be the target of them.

      It’s inconsistent to support these in SOME cases. Either they’re all bad or none are.

  19. I am opposed to prosecuting people for essentially the same crime at the state and federal level. Much of the federal criminal code should be abolished.

    However, as long as that is both law and practice, such prosecutions should at least be applied uniformly, regardless of race, religion, or other characteristics of the people involved.

  20. Why does the media never mention the perp’s race when it is a non-white person attacking Jews, as it was here and in Jersey City-does it ruin their narrative that only white supremacists are anti-semites?

    1. Yes.

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  22. I look forward to reason’s amicus brief for Paul Manafort.

    This comment not approved by Silicon Valley brain slugs.

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