A Florida man has pleaded guilty to committing a hate crime for a threatening call he made to a local mosque in February.
The Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office announced on Thursday that Gerald Wallace, 35, admitted in a plea hearing to leaving a threatening voicemail for the Islamic Center of Greater Miami on Feb. 19. He pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs.
Wallace admitted to leaving a message with hateful remarks against Islam, the Quran and the prophet Muhammad. In the voicemail, he reportedly said: “l hate you Muslims, you Muslims are terrible. l hate you people. l’m gonna go down to your center, I’m gonna’ shoot all ya’ll.”
The defendant faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for committing a hate crime, according to the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Hate crimes, no matter their form, engender fear and have no place in our society,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg in a statement. “By leaving a hate-filled and profanity laden message against Islam and threatening to shoot the members of the mosque he targeted, Gerald Wallace obstructed the free exercise of religion.”
John Gore, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, added: “The Justice Department will not tolerate threats of hate violence, which threaten whole communities’ sense of safety and security.”
Wallace’s sentencing is set for Jan. 17, 2018, in front of U.S. District Court Judge Marcia G. Cooke.
The prosecution marks a rare victory in the fight against Islamophobia and other forms of bias. Hate crimes are notoriously hard to prosecute and prove, and they carry harsher penalties than other crimes in most jurisdictions. Prosecutors typically must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator singled out the victim because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, among other identity factors.
Short of the attacker admitting a motivation of bias, as Wallace did, prosecutors typically look for evidence from witnesses that the perpetrator yelled bigoted slurs or had a history of prejudice. Even past biased comments and actions sometimes aren’t enough to prove hate crime charges.
Frederick M. Lawrence, a lawyer and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, told HuffPost for a previous article that what matters legally is “what can be proven in the criminal court.”
“These are very difficult cases precisely because of that,” Lawrence said.
Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, communications director for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, applauded the prosecution in a statement on Thursday.
“This criminal will now have some time to reflect on the damage he has done to Muslim worshipers,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz noted that the Florida Muslim community has experienced “an unprecedented level” of threats and attacks in recent years. Among the incidents he pointed to was a February arson attack at a Tampa mosque, as well as assaults on Muslim worshipers and bullying of Muslim children in schools.
“We commend Acting U.S. Attorney Greenberg for keeping the Department of Justice lines of communication and cooperation open with the Muslim community,” Ruiz said. “The strong message this sends is that Florida has no place for hate crimes against Muslims.”