CHARLESTON – Though state black leaders are keeping mum on a dispute between the state attorney general and the Logan County prosecutor over filing hate-crime charges in a civil rights case, a Washington, D.C.. attorney said West Virginians should "stay tuned" if the case continues to be a political football.
Last weekend, the Charleston Gazette reported on a dispute between Logan County Prosecutor Brian Abraham and Attorney General Darrell McGraw pertaining to the Megan Williams case. Williams is a 20-year old black woman from Charleston who alleges she was kidnapped, raped and tortured in September by six white suspects at a trailer in Big Creek.
Since then, the case has garnered national publicity with many calling on not only Abraham, but also U.S. Attorney Charles Miller to charge the suspects with a hate-crime. Though he said he would not be pressured into filing hate-crime charges against the suspects, Abraham did say he would seek an opinion from the attorney general's office on the matter.
According to the Gazette, Abraham got an unexpected surprise when not only one of McGraw's senior deputies informed him that they would not be offering an opinion, but also when McGraw himself announced a day later his desire to takeover prosecution of the case.
The dispute between Abraham and McGraw is something that has not gone unnoticed by Malik Z. Shabazz, president of the Black Lawyers for Justice, and the most outspoken proponent for hate-crime charges. Starting next week, and until someone can make firm decision on whether to file hate-crime charges, Shabazz says the Mountain State may become his home away from home.
"We're going to continue to follow this case, and march in the streets again if needed," Shabazz said.
Passing the buck
According to the Gazette, Abraham requested an opinion on applying hate-crime statutes against the six suspects from Paul Sheridan, deputy attorney general for civil rights, shortly after police found Williams. Abraham was quoted as saying that Sheridan "offered his assistance and the assistance of [McGraw's office]" and he "had half a dozen conversations with him since then."
On Sept. 20, Abraham wrote a letter to the Attorney's General's Office requesting on opinion on state hate-crimes law.
Though it unclear as to when, but Abraham received a response from Fran Hughes, chief deputy attorney general, saying that they would not be offering an opinion partially because the office doesn't have the resources to accommodate such requests. Also, she told the Gazette that Sheridan was out-of-line in speaking for the Attorney General's Office on the matter.
Abraham called Hughes' letter "half-assed," and reportedly phoned her at her office to challenge her findings. However, according to the Gazette, Hughes stood her ground, and said Abraham is attempting to pass-off a volatile decision to the Attorney General.
"He is as capable of making the determination of what the law is as the attorney general in this context," Hughes told the Gazette. "He is a lawyer and he is an elected official. He has to make those difficult decisions and not put it on the Attorney General's Office."
McGraw's interest questioned
On Dec. 1, McGraw reportedly offered to take over prosecution of the Williams case. This caught Abraham off-guard as he did not ask for McGraw's assistance, and that the Attorney General is not empowered to prosecute criminal statutes.
According to the Gazette, McGraw acknowledged his office lacks prosecutorial powers "except under a judge's order." However, he said is offer to was to take any pressure off Abraham to prevent the case from becoming "problematic, even inflammatory ..."
Despite lacking prosecutorial powers, McGraw told the Gazette the Attorney General's Office does have extensive experience in handling civil rights cases through the Human Rights Commission.
However, McGraw said such an undertaking would not come cheap. Should his office take over the case, McGraw told the Gazette he would seek assistance from either the Logan County Commission or the Legislature.
"This is an expensive case to be prosecuting," McGraw said. "It involves a lot of people."
Nevertheless, Abraham said McGraw's help is not needed.
"I do not want him to prosecute it," Abraham told the Gazette. "I don't need it. I'm perfectly capable of prosecuting it."
The Record attempted to obtain a comment from McGraw regarding his sudden desire in the case, including the credentials of potential prosecutors, and any estimation on the costs of prosecution. He did not return repeated calls.
Shabazz to return to Charleston
Also, The Record sought comment from Rev. Lloyd Hill, president of the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance, and Kenneth Hale, president of the state NAACP, concerning the dispute between McGraw and Abraham. Hill did not return repeated telephone calls, and Hale deferred comment until a later time.
"I really haven't read up on what the dilemma's about, so I don't have a comment at this time," Hale said.
However, Shabazz said the political wrangling between McGraw and Abraham was just that, political.
"There's not a lot of back and forth needed," Shabazz said. "Whoever prosecutes this case should vigorously prosecute it, and add a hate-crime charge to it."
Shabazz, who, along with Williams and her family, led an estimated 1,000 people though downtown Charleston Nov. 3 calling for hate-crime charges to be applied in the case, says he plans "to continue to stay in the fight for justice."
Specifically, he, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton will make an appearance Tuesday, Dec. 18 at First Baptist Church in Charleston. Sharpton was scheduled to appear in Charleston on Nov. 3, but unable to attend for reasons not immediately clear.
Also, despite assurances they gave to Abraham they would keep a low-profile until the trial, Williams and her family are scheduled to meet with Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas) on Wednesday, Dec. 12, Shabazz said. Except for Williams detailing her case to Lee, Shabazz didn't provide any details about the meeting.
Keeping a spotlight on the Williams case, Shabazz said, is not only for Williams' benefit legally, but also emotionally.
"We have a particular interest in seeing her healed," Shabazz said.