Was the Vermont shooting of 3 men of Palestinian descent a hate crime?

FILE - A sign on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., is pictured on March 11, 2020. Police say three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering were shot and injured near the University of Vermont campus. Police are searching for the suspect after the three were shot late Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

FILE - A sign on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., is pictured on March 11, 2020. Police say three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering were shot and injured near the University of Vermont campus. Police are searching for the suspect after the three were shot late Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) Charles Krupa

This image provided by the Burlington Police Department shows Jason J. Eaton. Police have arrested the suspect in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Eaton while conducting a search of the shooting area in Burlington on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023 the Burlington Police Department said in...

This image provided by the Burlington Police Department shows Jason J. Eaton. Police have arrested the suspect in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Eaton while conducting a search of the shooting area in Burlington on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023 the Burlington Police Department said in...

In this still frame from video provided by WCAX-TV law enforcement officers stand by police tape near a scene Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 where three men of Palestinian descent were shot and injured, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (WCAX-TV via AP)

In this still frame from video provided by WCAX-TV law enforcement officers stand by police tape near a scene Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 where three men of Palestinian descent were shot and injured, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (WCAX-TV via AP)

In this still frame from video provided by WCAX-TV Burlington, Vt. Police vehicles rest near a scene Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 where three men of Palestinian descent were shot and injured, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (WCAX-TV via AP)

In this still frame from video provided by WCAX-TV Burlington, Vt. Police vehicles rest near a scene Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 where three men of Palestinian descent were shot and injured, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (WCAX-TV via AP)

People gather in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., for a vigil, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

People gather in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., for a vigil, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP) Kristopher Radder Brattleboro Reformer

By MICHAEL CASEY

Associated Press

Published: 11-28-2023 1:28 PM

BOSTON — As authorities in Vermont push forward with their investigation of the weekend shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent, they are weighing whether to treat the violence as a hate crime.

The three young men were shot and seriously injured Saturday while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington. The victims were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, police said. The suspect, a white man in his 40s, fired at them with a handgun, police said.

Jason Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday and has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder.

The shooting has rocked the local community and comes amid an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas war began.

But whether it can be declared a hate crime is complicated.

Vermont has a hate crimes statute that applies to someone whose crime is motivated “in whole or in part, by the victim’s actual or perceived protected category.” That includes race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, service in the U.S. Armed Forces or the National Guard and disability.

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But Chittenden County State’s attorney Sarah George told reporters on Monday that the state doesn’t “yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement,” which under Vermont law must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I do want to be clear that there is no question this was a hateful act,” she said.

ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling said he believes the state hate crimes statue could apply in this case.

“Based on the information that is available, it appears this crime might have been motivated by the victims’ identity and, if that is true, it would be appropriate to seek the hate crimes enhancement,” Schilling said, adding that the motive behind the shooting will be critical in determining whether this is treated as a hate crime.

If Eaton is charged with a hate crime under state law, it would likely be in addition to the three charges of attempted murder he already faces. George described the charges as “life felonies,” which carry a sentence of 20 years to life.

For lesser charges such as crimes carrying less than five years in jail, the statute calls for an additional five years or a fine of not more than $10,000.00 — or both. But for more serious charges like attempted murder, the court would most likely consider a sentence on the hate crime charges as part of the overall sentence.