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Fulton County DA will seek hate crime sentence enhancements in Atlanta-area spa shootings

A Georgia district attorney has filed a formal notice that she intends to seek hate crime sentencing enhancements against the man accused of fatally shooting eight people — six of them Asian women — at Atlanta-area spas in March. Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, where four of the killings took place, said she believes 22-year-old Robert Aaron Long was motivated by race and gender bias. 

Long had already pleaded guilty to the other four killings in Cherokee County, where district attorney Shannon Wallace said an investigation didn't uncover evidence of a history of bias against any racial or ethnic group.

Speaking at a press conference after Long appeared briefly in Fulton County court Monday, Willis said she has respect for the Cherokee County district attorney, but made her decision to pursue hate crime enhancements based on the facts, the law and her conscience.

"I am very comfortable in my decision to request sentencing enhancements based on the fact that race and gender played a role," Willis said.

Robert Aaron Long appears in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta, Aug. 30, 2021.  Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP

Willis said she is happy to be one of the first prosecutors in the state to use Georgia's new hate crime law, and hailed the state legislature as "courageous" for passing the law last year.

Wallace, the Cherokee County DA, said last month she had agreed to forego pursuing the death penalty in a plea deal that would send Long to prison for the rest of his life. But Willis said she intends to pursue the death penalty in the Fulton County case, though she said she has been approached by Long's attorneys about a possible plea deal.

Speaking at a press conference last month, Wallace said the attacks happened during a time of increased hate-based violence against Asian Americans, and said her office was "acutely aware of these valid concerns." But she described an exhaustive investigation into Long's motives and said neither local authorities nor the FBI uncovered any evidence of a history of bigotry or racism against any ethnic group.

Wallace said her office had considered filing a hate crime enhancement request based on gender bias had the case gone to trial, but said it would not have extended Long's sentence. After conversations with victims and families of victims, she agreed to a plea deal in the interest of swift justice and avoiding lengthy appeals.

The killings sparked fear and outrage among Asian Americans, who were already on edge because of increased hostility stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Many have been upset by assertions that Long was motivated not by racial bias but by the shame he felt from a sex addiction, which is not recognized as an official disorder. Advocates say Asian-American women struggle with both racism and sexism in a culture that often hypersexualizes and objectifies them.

Women reported nearly 65% of anti-Asian hate incidents nationally between March 2020 and March 2021, according to data released by the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate.

Sociologist on America's history of hypersexualizing Asian women 11:20

Long was scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Fulton County Superior Court on charges including murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism in the Atlanta killings. 

The judge went through some preliminary steps and established that Long's lawyers are qualified to handle a death penalty case. Then he said the hearing would continue Sept. 28, with the reading of the indictment and entry of a plea.

Those killed in Cherokee County were Paul Michels, 54; Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Delaina Yaun, 33. The Atlanta victims were Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63. 

All four victims in Fulton County were of Asian descent. Willis, who said this was "one of the most horrific cases" to have occurred in Fulton County, said her decision to seek the death penalty and hate crime enhancements was made with the "complete support" of the victims' families.

Atlanta-area spa shootings
Flowers and signs of support left outside Young's Asian Massage spa in Acworth, Georgia, on March 19, 2021, following the shootings there and at two other Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead. Candice Choi / AP

"Every person here is going to be valued, everyone is considered equal before the law, and I don't ever want our victims to get lost," Willis said during a news conference after Monday's hearing. "These are all women who worked and lived and played in our community."

Georgia's new hate crimes law does not provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a person is convicted of an underlying crime, a jury must determine whether it was motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.

Willis acknowledged that the case could take a long time to prosecute and said the families understand that Monday's court appearance marked the start of a "of a very long journey and a very long process."

Long said during the hearing in Cherokee County he planned to kill himself that day and went to the massage businesses thinking the shame he felt from paying for sex acts would push him to do it. But while sitting in his car outside the first spa, he decided to kill the people inside.  

After shooting five people at that spa in Cherokee County, he got in his car and drove about 30 miles south to Atlanta, where he shot three women at Gold Spa and one woman across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, police have said.

He then got back in his car and headed south on the interstate, and authorities have said he intended to carry out similar attacks in Florida.

But his parents had called police after recognizing their son in images from security video posted online by authorities in Cherokee County. His parents were already tracking his movements through an application on his phone, and that allowed authorities to find him.

He was taken into custody in south Georgia and told detectives he struggled with pornography and sex and felt tremendous guilt when he viewed porn or engaged in sexual acts at massage businesses, Wallace said during last month's hearing. Long blamed the victims for his inability to control his impulses, Wallace said.

"The fact is, no one is to blame for the defendant's failures and sins but the defendant himself," Wallace said.

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