The threatening words discovered on the side of Virginia Trotter's Odenton home sent a chill down her spine: In dark red spray paint, someone had written a racial epithet and the letters KKK in what she saw as an act of racially motivated vandalism.
Anne Arundel County police investigating the crime weren't so sure: Trotter and her husband are black - but so are the teenage suspects.
After initially saying that it was not investigating the incident as a hate crime, the department reversed course yesterday and said the case deserves "special handling."
Nationwide, same-race hate crimes are extremely rare. But the recent incident was the second of its kind recently in the Baltimore area, illustrating the murkiness of defining same-race crimes.
In December, Baltimore police announced that a black firefighter who reported finding a knotted rope and a threatening note with a drawing of a noose in an East Baltimore station house had placed the items there himself. Donald Maynard was fired, but police did not charge him because his actions did not fit the city or federal definition of a hate crime.
Black leaders had urged that the person responsible be charged until they learned that he was black. Others said the punishment for such threats should be the same regardless of race.
Members of the state NAACP plan to speak to state prosecutors in March to clarify what constitutes a hate crime and the standards that local state's attorneys use in applying the law, said Carl O. Snowden, who heads the Office for Civil Rights in the Maryland attorney general's office. A number of incidents - including the death of a black teenager at a facility for young juvenile offenders last January in Carroll County - spurred inquiries.
Same-race incidents could also be discussed, he said.
"The people who commit these types of hate crimes do far more damage to the social fabric of our society because they allow people the excuse of believing that hate crimes don't exist," Snowden said.
According to federal statistics, of the 3,500 racially motivated hate crimes nationwide in which the race of the offender is known, about 300 involved victims and suspects that were of the same race, a majority of which were committed by whites against whites.
Legal experts and researchers who study hate crimes say that it is possible - but unlikely - for someone of the same race as the victim to be charged with a hate crime. Randy Blazak, director of the Hate Crimes Research Network at Portland State University, said hate crimes are judged on a "but for" criteria - the crime wouldn't have happened "but for" the race, religion or ethnicity to which the victim belonged.
Prosecutors must also prove that the crime was motivated by hate, said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.
"If it's a joke, I don't know that we can prove the motivation is hate," Weathersbee said.
On Jan. 20, neighbors found the graffiti on the home of Lorenza and Virginia Trotter, in the 2000 block of Brigadier Blvd. Trotter said the racial slur and "KKK" were accompanied by a drawing of male genitals.
Police said witnesses reported having seen a group of black males flee the scene. A police spokeswoman said last week that the suspects were thought to be a group of teenagers "trying to outdo another group of kids with vandalism. ... It was not a racially motivated incident."
Yesterday, police said the possibility that the incident might be classified as a hate crime had not been ruled out. Investigators want to learn more about the incident.
"Our philosophy on this incident is, we'd rather be safe than sorry," said Cpl. Mark Shawkey, a police spokesman. "We want the community to see we are concerned about their concerns."
A report released last fall showed that Anne Arundel County had the second-highest number of reported hate incidents in Maryland in 2006, behind Baltimore. A hate crime is different from a hate incident because there must be an illegal act - such as a destruction of property or an assault - to be classified as a crime, police said.
Authorities in Anne Arundel recorded 80 such incidents in 2006, compared with 76 in 2005 and 66 in 2004. Baltimore reported 135 in 2006.
The report also found that local police had verified less than 20 percent of such claims, far lower than other jurisdictions. Shawkey said the high number of incidents - and relatively low clearance rate - were reflective of broader standards used by the agency to classify hate incidents.
The county has had several highly publicized racial incidents in recent years. In 2000, the county schools superintendent, who was black, received death threats over a busing plan, and neo-Nazi graffiti appeared at South River High School in 2003.
Black community leaders were incensed in 2001 when prosecutors dropped charges against a Crownsville man accused of defacing a statue of the late black doctor and political leader Aris T. Allen by placing a white hood on its head and taping Confederate flags to its hands.
Weathersbee designated a hate crime specialist seven years ago in response to concerns that the county wasn't aggressively pursuing hate crime prosecutions. Snowden said the effort has largely been effective, though some civil rights activists have said there remains much room for improvement.
The penalties for religious and ethnic crimes can be steep. If the offense is a felony, a judge can add 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine or twice those amounts for a crime resulting in death. In other cases, a hate crime is a misdemeanor, and the person convicted can be sentenced to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Nationwide, more than 9,000 hate crimes involving race, religion and sexual orientation were recorded in 2006. The relatively few same-race incidents were far more likely to involve whites; out of 935 anti-white hate crimes, 204 were found to have been committed by whites. Only 87 of 3,200 hate crimes against blacks were committed by blacks, according to FBI statistics. No statistics were available for anti-Hispanic hate crimes committed by Hispanics.
In some ways, Trotter said, the fact that the suspects are members of her own race is even more troubling.
"I guess you can kind of, well, almost understand when someone of a different race does something like that. You say, 'They're sick,' or something. But when your own race does it, it makes me really angry. The young kids today, they don't understand that that kind of thing isn't taken lightly."