Maryland's hate-crimes law violates a person's right to be a bigot, the American Civil Liberties Union said yesterday, joining the defense of a white man sentenced to 60 years in prison for pouring lighter fluid on a black woman.
Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of Washington, and the Maryland ACLU have joined a challenge of the law in the Maryland Court of Appeals. The case involves an appeal by John Randolph Ayers, who was convicted by a Montgomery County jury last year for attacking the woman in March 1992.
Under the hate-crimes law, "you can be convicted of being a bad person rather than having the state prove your guilt on a particular occasion," Mr. Spitzer told the state's highest court while arguing that the law is unconstitutional.
"But you can't make it a crime to be racist, to be prejudiced against Asians, Jews or Hispanics. People have a right to be a bigot."
He said that the ACLU did not condone the attack, but that he thought prosecutors had gone too far in trying to prove that the crime was racially motivated.
Ayers' attorney, Victor L. Crawford, also said the law is unconstitutional.
The Maryland attorney general's office and the Anti-Defamation League's Washington-Maryland regional office urged the court to uphold the law. Gary E. Bair, chief of the attorney general's criminal appeals section, argued that the statute is virtually the same as a Wisconsin law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
Ayers and another man, Sean Riley, attacked Johnnie Mae McCrae of Wheaton, on March 3, 1993, after deciding to find a black person to assault, prosecutors said. Riley pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Yesterday, as the appeal was heard, Mr. Bair was questioned extensively by many of the seven judges, including Judge John C. Eldridge, who drew fine distinctions between the Maryland and Wisconsin laws.
Wisconsin's law, for example, allows judges to increase penalties for people convicted of racially motivated crimes. Maryland's law makes hate crimes separate offenses.
Judges also were concerned that prosecutors in the Ayers case were allowed to present evidence showing that he had acted in a racist manner before the attack on Ms. McRae. Three days before the attack, prosecutors said, Ayers and Riley shouted racial epithets at a young black man outside a 7-Eleven store and beat him.
Mr. Bair said prosecutors needed to use that incident to show that Ayers and Riley were motivated by racism when attacking Ms. McCrae.
Judge Robert M. Bell asked whether prosecutors, using that logic, would have to prove someone is a racist to convict him of a hate crime.
"The state has to have some way to prove racial motivation," Mr. Bair responded. He added that the Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors can use evidence of previous racial acts to prove that a person is guilty of a hate crime.
Mr. Crawford argued that prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence of the 7-Eleven incident.
He argued that another flaw in the state law is that it makes it illegal to "harass" someone for racial, religious or ethic reasons. He said the term is too vague and is open to overly broad interpretation.
In 1992, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 747 valid hate crimes reported in Maryland and 119 arrests for hate offenses, said Michael J. McKelvin, a Maryland State Police spokesman.