SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The recent beating of a young man and his father at their Salt Lake City tire shop by an attacker who told police he targeted them because they were Mexican is renewing criticism of the state's hate crime law, which one prosecutor is calling unusable.
Rather than protecting specific groups, the 1990s-era measure speaks generally about crimes that block people from freely exercising their constitutional rights.
"It's not worth the paper it's written on," said Salt Lake County Attorney District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat, said Wednesday. The hate crime statute hasn't been prosecuted for at least two decades, and ethnic and LGBT groups live in fear when attacks happen, he said.
Because the law doesn't apply to felony crimes, Gill's office couldn't use it to charge Alan Dale Covington, 50, with a hate crime, even though he told police that he attacked a father and son with a 3-foot metal pole because they were from Mexico, according to charging documents.
He told investigators the "Mexican Mafia" had been after him for years and that he went to Lopez Tires on Nov. 27 because "they all know each other," police said.
The Lopez family has said Covington shouted, "I'm here to kill a Mexican" before he started swinging the metal pole. Covington, who is African-American, doesn't have a listed attorney. He is homeless and had heroin in his system when he was arrested, prosecutors said.
He acknowledged to police that he didn't know the victims, Luis and Jose Lopez. Luis Lopez, 18, suffered serious head wounds after he tried to defend his father, who was hit in the shoulder as he ran away.
Covington has been charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault.
Local public officials from across the state have appealed to lawmakers to beef up punishments for hate crimes and add LGBT protections. Those efforts have died in recent years after the influential Mormon church weighed in by saying the proposal would upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights.
Utah state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican, said he plans to try again to strengthen the law to include more serious penalties next year, even though prospects are uncertain.
"Under Utah law ... we cannot acknowledge it was a hate crime. That, in my opinion, does a disservice to the family, it's a disservice to the entire Hispanic community, and it's a disservice to Utah as a whole," he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined comment Wednesday about the incident or the state of hate crimes law.
Other lawmakers still have concerns about the measure. Sen. Todd Weiler, also a Republican, said the Lopez allegations are reprehensible and the current law is imperfect. Still, he's worried about singling out certain groups for special treatment or criminalizing people's thoughts or writings in cases where bias isn't as clear.
"They think that if the Legislature waves its magic wand, all the hate and racism goes away. It doesn't," he said.
All but five states in the U.S. have hate crime laws; Utah is one of 15 states that have such laws but don't cover anti-LGBT-crimes, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Luis Lopez's sister, Veronica Lopez, didn't return a phone call seeking an update about her brother's condition. But a GoFundMe page she created said that Luis Lopez is home recovering after having surgery to place a titanium plate in the right side of his "shattered" face. She said her father's arm and back are bruised, but better.
She said the family doesn't have any health insurance. So far, nearly $70,000 in donations have been made.
Luis Garza, director of the Utah immigrant rights group called Comunidades Unidas, said the beating of the Lopez was clearly a hate crime. His organization is already meeting with LGBT groups and others to advocate for a stronger law when the Legislature meets in January.
"Many times legislators turn a blind eye on things like this," Garza said. "We want to think that these things don't happen in our state, but they are happening."