Prosecutors say murder of Missouri trans teenager is not a hate crime

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COLUMBIA-The LGBTQ community is questioning why the Texas County prosecutor didn't file hate crime charges against four people suspected of killing a transgender teenager.

The murder of Ally Lee Steinfeld, from Houston, Missouri, was vicious.

Someone gouged her eyes out, butchered her body and slashed her genitals. Her bones were torched, stuffed in a plastic bag and left in a chicken coop, near a dented trailer. Police also found her blood stained into the living room carpet of the trailer.

“It was brutal,” Texas County Sheriff James Sigman said.

Police charged the owner of the trailer Briana Calderas, 24, as well as Andrew Vrba and Isis Schauer, both 18, with first-degree murder. James Grigsby, 25, was charged with tampering of evidence and the abandonment of a corpse. 

Steinfeld whose birth name was Joseph Matthew Steinfeld Jr., announced her transition in May on Instagram. 

"I am proud to be me I am proud to be trans I am beautiful I don't care what people think,” she said on one post. 

Steinfeld went missing on Sept. 1. Police found her body Sept. 20. The sheriff said she most likely died a few days before her 18th birthday.

She was the 22nd transgender person killed in 2017, according to the Human Rights Campaign.  

LGTBQ advocates and others following the case criticized the prosecutors’ decision to not charge the suspects with a hate crime. 

“I would say murder in the first-degree is all that matters,” prosecutor Parke Stevens Jr. told the Associated Press. “That is a hate crime in itself.”

Missouri has a hate crime statute, which enhances penalties for crimes "knowingly motivated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation or disability of the victim or victims."

Sandy Davidson, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and School of Law, said a prosecutor’s motion to charge for hate crime comes down to one factor. 

 “To determine a hate crime you have to look at intent. What the court system has to do is determine whether picking out that victim was based on that category that’s protected or was it just incidental,” she said. 

Davidson said it takes considerable evidence to charge with a hate crime.

“A prosecutor has to prove his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a very high level of proof. So, you do not as a prosecutor charge somebody with an offense unless you truly believe you can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

Davidson said ongoing cases can lead a prosecutor to change charges.  

“Day one you may not have the information. Day 10 you may be like 'oh this changes the situation.' As more facts emerge, perhaps the prosecutor will want to amend the charges,” she said.  

 Prosecuting Attorney Parke Stevens Jr. of Texas County declined further comment because the investigation is ongoing.