Alante Saunders, the 19-year-old who was among four teens suspected in the April slaying of D.C. area middle school principal Brian Betts, received a 40-year prison term after pleading guilty earlier this month to felony murder charges. But was it a hate crime?
Prosecutors say there’s no evidence of a hate crime, but Gloria Allred — the attorney who loves hearing herself talk, and is representing Betts’ family — says Betts was shot to death because he is gay, and plans on demanding prosecutors treat the murder as a hate crime.
But does killing a man who happens to be gay, who you happened to have met through a gay sex line, mean you targeted the person because he’s gay? Police initially suspected the slaying was a random robbery before tying more pieces together, none of which, apparently, indicate Betts was specifically hit because of his sexuality. Except the investigation did reveal Saunders was the one who set up Betts as a robbery target, exchanging messages that would eventually lead to Betts agreeing to leave his door unlocked so Saunders could come over. If Betts was targeted for robbery because he is gay, doesn’t that count? And if the murder was “accidental,” as Saunders claims, does that matter? It shouldn’t; crimes committed during the course of other crimes (like killing a bank teller during a heist) are attached to the original motive, and prosecuted as such. Except John McCarthy, Montgomery County’s prosecutor, insists the hate crime element doesn’t apply. “If we had seen evidence of a hate crime, we would have charged it,” he says. “And we have an advantage. We’ve seen the evidence. . . . You can only go where the evidence leads you.”
During his sentencing, Saunders — whose attorney insisted the gun went off by accident — apologized to Betts’ family and acknowledged a 40-year sentence might not be enough: “I didn’t go there meaning to harm him in any way. And it was just over basically getting money for drugs. Drugs was the powerful force in this situation and I am very sorry. I understand how y’all feel about it’s not really enough justice. Because I’d want more if I was in y’all’s shoes too, say, if someone took my mom, because that’s the most important person in my life.” (The Washington Post reports, “Montgomery County Circuit Judge John Debelius imposed the sentence, but he was bound to the 40-year term by an earlier agreement between prosecutors and Saunders’s attorney.” Since when are judges “bound” by deals worked out by prosecutors?)
Saunder’s co-suspect Sharif Lancaster, also 19 and whose girlfriend’s phone Saunders used to make the calls, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to the far less serious charges of robbery and using a gun in a violent crime; he faces up to 35 years. The cases against Joel Johnson and Deontra Gray, both 19, have yet to conclude.