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Is the destruction of the downtown Fort Myers Robert E. Lee statue a hate crime?

Someone knocked down the controversial statue of Robert E. Lee in Fort Myers earlier this year. Some call it disrespectful while the Sons of the Confederate Veterans are calling it something much more serious. It is that claim that could change a potential punishment for one of the men charged.

Some people celebrated when vandals knocked Robert E. Lee’s bust to the ground. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans living in Southwest Florida took the destruction personally. They hired a lawyer to file a 79-page motion calling for the suspect to also face a hate crime charge.

According to Dr. Pamela Seay, Florida Gulf Coast University justice studies professor, the ‘hate crime’ is solely up to the state attorney.

“Charging decisions are purely within the discretion of the prosecutor. Although the judge can make a suggestion, it is up to the prosecutor to make that call,” Seay said.

According to Florida Statute, hate crime is an enhancement penalty for a crime that shows prejudice based on “race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, homeless status or advanced age of the victim.”

“This (vandalism) would be perfectly appropriate to include in jury instructions and for the judge to use to enhance the penalty,” Seay said.

People in downtown Fort Myers have mixed opinions.

“It’s a delicate matter,” Gavin Makava said. “But to say that it’s a hate crime for the people who put it up, it’s a little exaggerated.”

“I did see the article this morning about one of the gentlemen who wants to be represented as a victim of that,” Jonathan Hart said. “I think that’s just politics.”

Most of the pages in the motion are filled with victim impact statements. Everyone is written by someone claiming their ancestors fought in the Civil War. One called the destruction of the monument “depressing and debilitating.” Another person wrote that vandalism felt like an additional nail in their coffin.

Many people said the statue is a symbol of their heritage and destroying it is hateful. “People…now they want to use hate crime if I say something offensive to you, well that’s a hate crime,” Jonathan Hart said. “In this case it was vandalism. It is vandalism and it should be handled as vandalism.

One thing is certain. The incident has people talking. We posted this on Facebook and over 800 of you offered an opinion. Take a look to see if you agree.

Reporter:Dannielle Garcia
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