Anoka County will not use a hate crime law to prosecute a restaurant patron who allegedly assaulted a woman for speaking Swahili because it might lead to a conviction on a lesser charge.
"We know that this was a crime that appears to be based on hatred and bias. We are considering that and we'll keep analyzing what role that plays in sentencing," said Paul Young, criminal division chief of the Anoka County Attorney's Office.
"Unfortunately," he added, "based on our laws, if we charge the crime that has that title (hate) in it, we run the risk of a conviction of a lower level offense and we don't want to do that."
Prosecutors have already charged Jodie Burchard-Risch, 43, with felony third-degree assault in the attack two weeks ago against Asma Jama at an Applebee's restaurant in Coon Rapids. As a hate crime, it would be considered a gross misdemeanor in Minnesota, Young said.
The criminal complaint says Burchard-Risch confronted Jama as Jama sat chatting with her family in a booth at the restaurant speaking Swahili. Burchard-Risch and her husband were sitting in the booth next to Jama and allegedly became upset at hearing Jama converse in a foreign language.
Jama, an ethnic Somali who came to Minnesota in 2000 from Kenya, said the couple told them to "go home" and insisted, "when you're in America you should speak English."
When Jama responded that she could to speak whatever language she wanted, authorities say Burchard-Risch smashed Jama in the face with the glass mug, splitting Jama's lower lip and sending her to the hospital. The Minneapolis woman sustained cuts across her face and a deep gash on her lip that required 17 stitches.
The incident sparked outrage locally and across the country. The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for hate crime charges to be filed against Burchard-Risch.
Young, with the Anoka County Attorney's Office, said the case is still ongoing and his office is waiting for evaluation of Jama's medical records. "It's not uncommon to amend charges based on additional evidence," he said.
Jama has left Minnesota for now to be with family. After the incident, Jama said she was "traumatized" and was considering of moving out of Minnesota.
But she had a change of heart on Sunday when community members gathered in front of Coon Rapids City Hall and told her they stand by her and what happened wasn't reflective of their city. Some gave her flowers, others hugged her.
Jama, who received support from people across the country, said she plans to come back to Minnesota in two weeks.
A friend of Jama started an online fundraising campaign on GoFundMe website to help Jama pay for her medical expenses. As of Thursday, people donated nearly $11,000, more than twice the $5,000 fundraising goal.
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