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The Club Q shooter may be charged with a hate crime. What that means in Colorado

Law enforcement officers document evidence in the parking lot the morning after a mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Sunday.

Whether local prosecutors will charge the perpetrator of Saturday's deadly shooting in Colorado Springs with a hate crime will depend on a number of factors.

On Saturday evening, a gunman stormed into Club Q and opened fire. Five people were killed and at least 25 were injured. Twenty-two-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich was taken into custody after being subdued by two patrons at the nightclub.

Right now, police are in the early stages of the investigation and motive has not be determined. When asked whether the attack was a hate crime, local district attorney Michael Allen said it will be investigated "in that lens."

In Colorado, a hate crime, also known as a bias-motivated crime, is defined as an assault or vandalism that is at least partially motivated by bias against a person's actual or perceived race, religion, nationality, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

"To prove what the person's motivation was, it's not always as easy as it may sound," Michael Dougherty, the district attorney for Boulder County, told NPR.

Regardless of whether a bias-motivated crime will be added to the list of charges, local authorities said first-degree murder will likely be one of them. Still, Dougherty said prosecuting hate crimes — if appropriate — matters.

"When you have hate crimes on the books, that sets a certain standard of what we demand of one another and what we as a society place as protections on the diversity in our country," he added.

The severity of the crime and use of gunfire could also subject the gunman to federal prosecution under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Why location of the attack matters in a hate crime case

Dougherty, who has worked on several hate crime cases, said the suspect's words can play a major role in determining intent. Police generally look through what the suspect said online, through text messages, in conversations with friends and family as well as what the suspect said before, during and after the attack.

Location of the attack matters, too, he said. Information around why a suspect chose a specific location, what kinds of people usually populate the area and whether the suspect has visited the location before can all help build a bias-motivated crime case.

"Investigators are going to go through every single piece of his life and every single piece of his digital history, electronic history, to figure out what the motive was," Dougherty added.

Colorado's hate crime laws were recently changed

Previously under Colorado law, prosecutors had to prove that a suspect's intent was solely motivated by hate. That changed last year when the state legislature passed a bill so that bias motivation only needs to be part of the offender's motivation in committing the crime.

Dougherty called it a "more reasonable approach" in proving intent and allows prosecutors to pursue cases even if there were multiple reasons behind an offender's attack.

"The step that the legislature took and that Governor Polis signed into law was a very positive step for victims of crime and for prosecutors to be able to do justice when a hate crime is committed," he said.

A recent Colorado survey found that one in five people experienced a hate crime or bias incident based on their sexual orientation

Nearly a third of adults in Colorado said they experienced some form of bias incident or hate crime in recent years, according to a recent survey compiled by Hate Free Colorado.

The state coalition of nonprofits surveyed over 5,000 residents and found that 28% of respondents had experiences with verbal harassment, property damage or physical injury based on their identity.

A majority of participants said that they experienced hate crimes or bias due to their race, ethnicity or ancestry. A quarter of participants attributed incidents to their gender identity while a fifth attributed it to their sexual orientation.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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