Was It a Hate Crime? Police Won't Say
In a case with possible markings of an anti-LGBT hate crime, authorities in rural Alabama have arrested six people in connection with the murder of a 19-year-old bisexual man last month.
Representatives from the sheriff's department in Walker County, northwest of Birmingham, say they know the motive for the murder of Nicholas Hawkins, who was found shot to death and wrapped in a blanket, buried under brush and debris, on Feb. 16.
However, they also say they're "not at liberty to discuss any motive" publicly, according to a report from AL.com.
Although authorities haven't released any evidence to suggest that Hawkins' sexual orientation was the motive for his murder, it's not uncommon for law enforcement officials to avoid labeling incidents hate crimes in the media because they fear negative publicity for their jurisdictions, especially in cases of extreme violence.
Some LGBT advocates have argued that the murder of a young, openly LGBT person in a rural, conservative area should be considered a hate crime until indicated otherwise. Furthermore, Alabama has in many ways been ground zero for backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, undoubtedly creating an even more hostile environment for LGBT people.
Hawkins, an aspiring cosmetologist, was returning from a beauty pageant when he phoned his mother at about 8 p.m. on Feb. 13 and said Joshua Adam Reese was trying to kill him, but gave no further details before the call cut off, AL.com reported.
At the time, the 21-year-old Reese was free on bond on an attempted murder charge from 2013, and police arrested him on an outstanding warrant Feb. 16, labeling him a person of interest in Hawkins' death. Hours later, after a three-day search, they discovered the body of Hawkins, who'd come out as bisexual in high school but later dropped out due to bullying.
Notably, none of the recent local news reports about the investigation into Hawkins' death have indicated that he was bisexual. In a recent post about Hawkins' murder, bisexual advocacy group BiNet USA said it is important to refer to the bisexual identities of people lost to violence.
"Although not enough information has been released to know if this was an act of violence due to his sexual orientation, it is important to note statistics show biphobia plays a big part in bullying and violence," the group wrote. "It's equally important to note the bisexual erasure in several articles reporting on Nick, that don't include his orientation. ... Nick's orientation mattered to him, and his loss is certainly a headline for our entire community."
Hawkins was weeks away from obtaining his GED, and at a vigil for the slain teen, his brother described him as "fragile, innocent and sweet."
"I hope we get swift, severe justice," Jacob Hawkins said. "From what I was told it was a horrible, horrible death."
On Feb. 26, police announced they'd charged Reese with murder in the case.
“We feel like our investigation shows that Joshua Reese is the person who shot and murdered Nicholas Hawkins," Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood said at a news conference.
Two other men — Danny Lee Jarvis, 22, and Cory Daniel Conner, 28 — have also been charged with murder in Hawkins' death.
"I can't go into what role they played in this case," Underwood said.
Like Reese, both Jarvis and Conner had prior criminal records.
The sheriff's office has also charged three people with hindering prosecution in Hawkins' murder: Colton Stephen Echols, 20, of Sumiton; Tessa Jean Wise, 23, of Dora; Lawanda Marie Reese, 39, of Quinton.
Lawanda Reese is Joshua Reese's mother, and police say she lied to investigators to aid her son.
"It's said that there were so many people involved, young people, for a senseless act," said Hawkins' uncle, Dan Frederick.
Sheriff Underwood could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday morning.
This is a developing story. Details may change. This story may be updated, and NCRM will likely publish follow-up stories on this news. Stay tuned.
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