In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Hate crime? Not as clear-cut as it sounds

Hate crime, the jury decided. A simple enough conclusion, given the racist utterances voiced by Luis Gonzalez as he gunned his engine, threw his pickup truck into reverse and raced backward toward two young black pedestrians.

But the Gonzalez case came layered with so many complexities that Wednesday’s sentencing hearing was like disassembling a Russian matryoshka doll.

“I don’t believe he is a racist. I don’t believe he is a racist by nature,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, even as he added the extra years for a hate crime onto a sentence for two counts of aggravated assault. The judge noted that in March, a jury had found that Gonzalez’s attack on the two black men outside a Hialeah pizza joint in 2012 had been “motivated by the color of their skin,” and had been punctuated with racial epithets.

So we have a racist crime committed by someone the judge deemed not a racist. Outside a courtroom, that might have had the making of a philosophical conundrum.

On Jan. 2, 2012, Gonzalez confronted two young black men on a Hialeah sidewalk and asked them, “What are you f---ing n------ doing up here? Trying to rob somebody?” After an exchange of unpleasantries, Gonzalez jumped into his truck and committed what the jurors decided was aggravated assault. Not, as the prosecutors had argued, attempted murder.

Prosecutors had suggested that Gonzalez, 52, born in Cuba but raised from the age of 8 in Hialeah, had become consumed with racial animus after May 17, 1980, the night the McDuffie riots — race riots — engulfed Miami. His lifelong friend Fernando Padron told me that Gonzalez, just 18 at the time, had been driving home from Miami Beach through Liberty City when he was waylaid by a mob, pulled from his car, brutally beaten by a black man with a baseball bat, then shot in the shoulder by another.

It was a racist attack on an innocent Hispanic man, spawned by black anger over a racist fatal beating of a black man by white policemen — which prosecutors claimed led in turn to this racist crime by the same Hispanic man on two innocent black men more than three decades later.

But there was a twist to the story. Gonzalez’s sister, Clara del Pozo, testified Wednesday that after Gonzalez had been beaten and shot and left to die behind a bus bench that night in Liberty City, it was another black man, led to the scene by his two children, who pulled the battered and bleeding man into the back of his pickup truck and, braving the mob, drove Gonzalez to the hospital.

“He was saved by this black family,” del Pozo told the judge. “Luis made mistakes, no doubt about it,” she said. “But as far as him being a racist — no, never, never.”

And then there was the report by Marvin Dunn, described as a “community psychologist,” who interviewed Gonzalez “on multiple occasions” after his arrest last year, along with members of his family and other acquaintances. “Mr. Gonzalez acted angrily. He reacted impulsively. He reacted aggressively. He reacted illegally. He reacted stupidly. He was probably drunk at the time.” But Dunn, a well-known black community activist, wrote that he “cannot conclude that he was motivated by racial prejudice nor can I fathom how this law can be applied fairly to him.”

There was another complication. As Gonzalez sped backward toward the young men, one of them pulled a .22-caliber pistol and fired at the truck. The bullet struck Gonzalez in the head. It was a serious wound that left Gonzalez with bullet fragments lodged in his head and residual brain damage. Assistant public defender David Sisselman offered a blunt diagnosis. “My client’s brains were scrambled,” he said.

Sisselman reminded the judge that the two young men, after the shooting with an unlicensed concealed firearm (“a violent felony,” Sisselman said) fled to West Palm Beach and hid out for several days before talking to police. Attempting to dissuade Judge Rodriguez-Chomat from applying the full brunt of the hate crime statute, he said the victims here had “unclean hands.”

It was something of a desperate argument. The judge made it clear he was bound by the jury verdict. And I’m sure that somewhere in the back of his mind, Sisselman was thinking that just a few years back in Miami-Dade County, the same set of circumstances would have seen him defending the two young black men in this case, not Gonzalez.

Sisselman also tried to challenge the hate-crime application, based on his client’s racist utterances, as a violation of Gonzalez’s right to free speech. “The law of the Constitution trumps the law of the state Legislature,” he said. But that was an argument too lofty for circuit court.

Gonzalez was also up against his own criminal record — four drunken-driving and two cocaine-possession convictions, along with an aggravated-stalking rap — qualifying him as a habitual offender. The judge could have sent him off for 60 years. Rodriguez-Chomat gave him 12, plus five years of probation.

He could be out of prison in 10 years — about the best he could have hoped for, given his criminal record and the race crime nailed onto his conviction.

It sounds simple enough, this notion of a hate crime, but on sentencing day the notion of racism seemed undermined by an unsettling subjectivity.

“He might not be a racist,” prosecutor Manolo Reboso argued Wednesday, adding his voice to the contradictions in the case. “But he committed despicable racist acts.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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