Possible hate crime incident provokes stir among churches



By Tom Breen and John Raby

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Representatives of several black churches appealed to prosecutors Thursday to pursue hate-crime or civil-rights charges against six white people accused of torturing a black woman over several days.

Logan County prosecutors say they have not ruled out hate-crime charges, but are focusing on the counts already filed, including some such as kidnapping and sexual assault, which have tougher maximum sentences. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have not sought civil-rights charges.

“The family is aghast and totally devastated by the findings of the Logan prosecutor that this barbaric, heinous, despicable (crime) is not one of racial hatred,” said the Rev. Emanuel Heyliger of the Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Dunbar.

Logan County Prosecutor Brian Abraham urged patience.

“We’re still working the case even today,” he said. “I’ll make that determination when the investigation is concluded, but I want to focus on the most serious crimes that carry the stiffest penalties.”

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Authorities also said the fact that Megan Williams knew one of her alleged attackers played a role in their decision not to pursue hate-crime or civil-rights charges at this time. Heyliger, speaking at a news conference outside the Charleston hospital where Williams is being treated, rejected that explanation Thursday.

“Whether she was known by or known to any one of these perpetrators, that is no reason why this case should not be treated as it should, and that is as a hate crime,” said Heyliger, who was joined by representatives of another Dunbar church and an association of black churches in Charleston.

Williams, 20, of Charleston, was held captive for more than a week at a ramshackle trailer in Logan County, where she was tortured, sexually assaulted and forced to eat animal droppings, according to criminal complaints.

Her captors choked her with a cable cord, stabbed her in the leg while calling her a racial epithet, poured hot water over her, made her drink from a toilet and beat her, according to the complaints.

West Virginia’s hate-crime statute carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Megan Williams is expected to remain in the hospital for a few more days. Her mother said her daughter has not talked about her ordeal in detail yet.