Many are calling for hate crime charges for the man who allegedly targeted Asian massage businesses in Cherokee and Fulton counties. But he could already face the state’s stiffest penalty: death by lethal injection. So what could be the role of hate crime charges? GPB's Ellen Eldridge reports.

An Asian woman wearing a mask that says "I am not a virus."

A demonstrator wearing a mask saying "I am not a virus" listens to a speech at a rally against Asian hate crimes, Saturday, March 27, 2021 at Chicago's Grant Park. The gathered crowd demanded justice for the victims of the Atlanta spa shooting and for an end to racism, xenophobia and misogyny.

Credit: AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar

For Asian Americans, charging the suspect in the recent killings at three massage and spa businesses under Georgia's new hate crime law could validate the community’s concern about a rise in anti-Asian hate during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Of the eight people killed, six were of Asian descent. The other two were white.

Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez and Paul Andre Michels were killed during the first attack on Young’s Asian Spa in Cherokee County. Hyun Grant, Soon Chung Park and Suncha Kim were killed at Gold Spa in Atlanta in the second attack, and Yong Ae Yue was killed across the street at Aromatherapy Spa in the third attack.

RELATED: 'Remember The Beautiful Souls Lost': Cherokee County Community Holds Vigil For Spa Shooting Victims

Hate incidents targeting Asian Americans rose by nearly 150% in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Asian American women twice as likely to be targeted, according to the most recent data.

Bjay Pak is a former U.S. district attorney who is currently representing the family of one of the spa shooting victims. And, as a Korean American, Pak said this case is personal for him. 

The symbolic importance and the message to send to the Asian American community (is) that they are protected.

If the suspect were to be convicted of a hate crime in addition to the underlying crimes, it won't have much effect in terms of the ultimate sentence because it is the maximum that's allowable under the law, Pak said.

The accused 21-year-old Woodstock man, Robert Long, faces life in prison and could face the death penalty. He has been appointed an attorney but waived his initial appearance in court.

Attorney Bjay Pak

Attoney Bjay Pak

Credit: Alston & Bird

"Many of the Asian American leaders throughout the country have been demanding that the hate crime statute be used and that aspect be charged because, I think, that was the main reason why the hate crime statute was necessary — to deter future conduct," Pak said. "The symbolic importance and the message to send to the Asian American community (is) that they are protected and this type of conduct would be discouraged going forward as well."

During an early press conference, many people took offense at the way the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office portrayed the suspect’s confession. Officials were criticized for taking the suspect’s word that the shootings were motivated by an addiction to sex that he wanted to “eliminate.” 

"You can't really rely only on what the defendant had said as to his motive to determine whether there's a hate crime," Pak said.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen stood with four other Asian American lawmakers to affirm that regardless of race, targeting women is still a hate crime. Seven of the eight victims were women.

"The perpetrator did say he was targeting these establishments because of a sex addiction, and the correlation is he was eliminating the sex workers in these places," Nguyen said. "That is a gender-based crime. And so under the hate crimes law that was passed, this would still be a hate crime."

In an initial incident report, a Cherokee County deputy checked a box for hate crime and wrote “anti-gender female.” 

The report was later changed to say motivation unknown. The sheriff’s office said the report was rejected because one of the four victims in the Cherokee County attack was a man.  

Michael Moore, a former U.S. attorney who served the Middle District of Georgia, said the change likely had to do with the reporting requirements for the new statute, but the altering of an initial report could lead to problems during the trial.

"It's sloppy, to say the least, and to give it the most kind of interpretation," Moore said. "You take that and then some of the comments made that are now in the public record about how they described the suspects, and I think that's a gold mine for people to make court challenges."

Joyette Holmes is the former Cobb County district attorney in charge of the prosecution of the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, whose death inspired Georgia’s hate crimes law.   

She agreed that though hate crimes charges may not change the penalty the suspect faces, the recognition of such motive validates what activists and people of color have been saying about racism for generations.

In Georgia law, prosecutors are not required to prove motive, but Holmes said there is a societal need to understand why someone did something so terrible.

"So even where you don't find a legal path forward to where it seems like it makes sense (to add a hate crimes sentence enhancer) if somebody is already being sentenced to death, I do think that there is a heavy societal push," she said. "Hopefully, within our generation and in our time, but certainly for those generations to come, so that in the history books, they're not talking about the same things that we're talking about today."

The prosecutors in both Fulton and Cherokee counties have not said when or if they may add hate crime charges to eight total murder charges and one charges of aggravated assault against the suspect in the spa shootings.