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Assault? Maybe. Hate crime? Maybe not.
Last week, Queens prosecutors offered a plea bargain to the two Middle Village teenagers accused of beating a self-described Satanist for his religious beliefs. The deal called for the teens to admit having committed simple assaultnot a hate crime. If city attorneys proceed to trial on their original allegations, it will mark the first time protections in New York's hate crimes legislation have been extended to a follower of the Church of Satan.
On January 31, Paul Rotondi and Frank Scarpinito, boyish-looking 18-year-olds, returned to Queens Criminal Court, accompanied by their parents. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has said the teens harassed and then jumped Daniel Romano, 20, also of Middle Village, because the atheist-oriented Satanist "was different from them." But in exchange for a guilty plea, the D.A.'s office proposed a sentence of one year, a fraction of the punishment for a bias-related crime.
Perhaps unwilling to say so directly, prosecutors appear willing to drop the hate charge. "It's accurate to infer that from the offer, yes," says spokesperson Patrick Clark. Still, the two men have refused the deal. Queens attorney Richard Leff, who represents Scarpinito, declined to comment. Sean McNicholas, Rotondi's lawyer, explains his client rejected it because prosecutors "said the plea was admitting guilt to the top charge," which he took to mean assault as a hate crime. "Maybe I misunderstood it," he adds, "but my client isn't about to admit having committed a hate crime."
Even so, McNicholas suggests his client would have passed on the offer regardless because the case "never should have been classified a hate crime." The threat of the special status not only raises the stakes in a possible trialhiking the maximum sentence from seven to 15 yearsbut also hikes the prosecutors' power in negotiations. A year of hard time strikes McNicholas as "stringent" for his client, whom he paints as a decent young man facing his first offense.
"If my client were a racist thug who assaulted this person purely because of his Satan-worshipping views, I'd have told him, 'Jump on the offer because you're lucky you're only getting a year,' " he says. "But that's not the truth."
It's important to note that Satanists don't worship the Judeo-Christian devil. Instead, they believe in the power of the individual, and see Satan as a metaphor for self-determination. As for Romano, he stands behind his January 11 criminal complaint, which charges that two days earlier Rotondi and Scarpinito had pummeled him so hard with a metal pipe and an ice scraper he had to get 12 stitches in his head. He says they had been taunting him for weeks, spreading rumors and calling him a "Satan worshipper," "baby sacrificer," and "hooker killer." And just before the assault, he says they yelled out, "Hey, Satan!"
Reached by the Voice after the failed plea deal, Romano had this to say of his alleged assailants: "They're foolish. Now they may have to do even more jail time."
Yet to hear the defense attorneys tell it, the attack was a classic beating over a bad debt. Never mind that Romano dies his hair blue, paints his fingernails black, and wears an inverted cross around his neck in a traditional Italian Catholic neighborhood. "The dispute would have occurred whether he was a Satan worshipper or black or Asian, because the parties know each other and had a fight over money," McNicholas said. "Is an alleged crime automatically a hate crime because the victim happens to be a Satanist?"
His question speaks to the general debate over hate crimes legislation. James B. Jacobs of New York University School of Law wrote the 1998 book Hate Crime, Criminal Law, and Identity Politics, which criticizes these laws as "a solution searching for a problem." While such statutes conjure up images of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, homophobes, and anti-Semites, Jacobs says most people accused of hate crimes "are young and impulsive"perhaps like the Middle Village kids. "They're not hardcore hatemongers following some ideology."
This is not to say that prosecutors have abused the hate crimes statute by considering it in this case. Gene O'Donnell, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the law couldn't be clearer: Don't beat up someone because of his religious practice. And because there are no state-sanctioned religions here, O'Donnell says, the phrase "religious practice" includes Satanism.
The defense attorneys remain intent on getting the case moved out of the D.A.'s hate crimes bureau. This week, they're expected to meet with prosecutors and present evidence they say will prove the fight was about moneyand nothing else. Court proceedings will resume on February 14, and prosecutors may ask a grand jury for formal indictments.
For now, Romano seems content to let the system take over. Although he denies owing either defendant any money, he realizes he can't stop prosecutors from doing what they need to do to seek a convictioneven if it means letting go of the hate crimes charge. "I want this prosecuted as a hate crime because I know I was jumped for being a Satanist," he says. "They've done something terrible for an ignorant reason."