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2 women put change in Colorado hate crime statute to the test

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Historically, Colorado set a very high standard for how it prosecutes hate crimes. A new provision in Colorado's hate crimes statute is aiming to change that. Jo Erickson, host of Systemic, a podcast from Colorado Public Radio, has this story about two women who tested the new provision.

MELISSA HALL: I was actually done monitoring the parking lot, and I was standing at the crosswalk fence to the parking lot area. And I was talking to another mom. A woman pulls in kind of late, and I didn't really notice her at first. And finally I realize that I'm hearing her say stuff.

JO ERICKSON, BYLINE: Melissa Hall is a Black parent in Colorado Springs. She volunteers to help monitor the parking lot at her kid's school. What you're hearing is Melissa's memory, recalling every single moment on that cold November afternoon in 2021, just after school ended. Nothing could prepare her for what happened next. The woman walked across the parking lot, approached another woman and hit her.

HALL: And I yelled, hey, you can't put your hands on people. So as I'm doing that, she's coming off of the parking area. She gets in her car. I think at that point is when I told her, hey, I'm recording you. So I start recording her. She tries to run me over with her car as I'm getting the phone on, so I jumped back up over the curb. Other parents are just trying to get their kids and get the heck out of there, and it's at that point that she says to me...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLIE BOUISEE: Get your [expletive] (inaudible).

HALL: You're being recorded.

BOUISEE: I don't care. You're just mad because I'm [expletive] white and you're a [expletive] [expletive].

HALL: Did you just call me a [expletive]?

ERICKSON: The other voice you're hearing is Ashlie Bouisee. She's a white parent at the school. In fact, one of her kids is in the same class as Melissa's daughter. Melissa reported the incident to the police in December 2021. The timing of this police report mattered. In June 2021, legislators voted to add a new amendment to Colorado's bias motivated crime statute. They noticed that offenders had found a small loophole in the law. To find somebody guilty of hate crime, it had to be proved then they were solely motivated by bias. So they added just a few words - in whole or in part - to the bill, which made it possible to prosecute these crimes. Melissa Hall was one of the first cases to use this law. Colorado Springs Police Department charged Ashlie with disorderly conduct and harassment. Now, if she was found guilty of harassment, Ashlie could face some jail time. If this sounds harsh, well, it's meant to be.

HALL: I would hate for her to have to go to jail. I'm not a person who's for, like, incarcerating people.

ERICKSON: Melissa could see there was a real possibility that a mother and her children could be separated. So Melissa pleaded with the courts to keep them together.

HALL: I felt like that would be a space, an experience where maybe she could have some exposure and maybe learn because I don't know that we can change a racist, bigoted person.

ERICKSON: In November 2022, Ashlie pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and harassment. The judge ordered Ashlie to pay $270 in fines, write a letter of apology and complete a course on diversity, equity and inclusion. So all Ashlie had to do is write a letter, pay a fine, go on a course, and this whole matter is over. OK, sounds simple.

In August 2023, Ashlie and Melissa were back in the same court. Ashlie still hadn't paid her fines or even started her course, but she had reached out to Melissa via social media with a type of written apology. But one word was missing - sorry.

HALL: Even if it had been just, I'm so sorry. My behavior was absolutely unacceptable. What I did was wrong. You know, it could have just been three simple sentences. It's not the length and the amount of verbiage that you put in something. It's the sincerity.

ERICKSON: The judge agreed and gave Ashlie one more chance to complete her orders, or she would be facing the prospects of spending Christmas in jail. And this time, Melissa wouldn't be able to intervene.

It's the 22 of December. I arrive at El Paso County Combined Court with only moments to spare. Court was in session at 8:30. It's 8:32. I saw Melissa sitting in the front row of seats. She turns and looks at me as if to say, Ashlie isn't here. It's 9:03, still no Ashlie. As a plea deal breaks down because they need a translator, Ashlie arrives. Ashlie was called to the stand. Her attorney said she had completed all the judge's orders and handed over the letter of apology. The judge asked Ashlie to tell her about what she'd learned on this course. Ashlie talked about the statistics and the barriers that Black folks faced. She also said that she had learned of white privilege.

The judge told Melissa to stand. She acknowledged Melissa's grace in this case and issued a strong warning to Ashlie not to reoffend. It took less than five minutes to close this case. After it was all over, I spoke to Ashlie in a noisy corridor filled with attorneys and clients talking.

Can you read out a little bit about the apology?

BOUISEE: It reads - (reading) dear Melissa, as I sit down to write this, I'm filled with mixed emotions. Reflecting on the past can be both sobering and enlightening. In 2021, I found myself in a place that was far removed from where I am today. It was a time marked by struggles with addiction, compounded by the fact that my husband too was battling similar challenges and eventually ended up in prison. Amidst this turmoil, I made choices I deeply regret, and in that tumultuous period, I directed a - hurtful words towards you. I can't express how sorry I am for the pain that I caused you during that time.

ERICKSON: When somebody gets angry, we naturally reach for those [expletive] words. You went for the N-word.

BOUISEE: Yeah, that was the very last thing I said as I was pulling away, like pulling my car and, like, leaving. Everyone I've told the story, they look at me, and they're like, Ashlie, you don't talk like that. I'm like, (gasps) I know, I know. And I even told, like, my video game friends. They're like, Ashlie, you don't do that. I'm like, I know (laughter). Unfortunately, that day I had just gotten denied to visit my husband in prison. So on top of that emotion, it just did not go well. I probably shouldn't have been the one to pick up my daughter that day. I was not in a good mental state.

ERICKSON: When I pushed her on the issue of white privilege being a societal privilege that benefits white folks, she said this...

BOUISEE: And I can definitely see that. However, I do think that with everything going on in our country, that they are trying to make examples of the white men to show, like, we're not prejudiced. Like, the white guys are going to do just as much time as the Black guys. And I say that because my husband's white, and a bunch of my friends who are white have been given longer jail sentences than they probably would have been if we were a few years earlier. And I think that's not fair. And being white in this country has gotten really hard (laughter).

ERICKSON: I came away thinking, did anything change? The judge went to a lot of trouble to add an education component to sentencing. I'm not sure we moved the needle. As for Melissa, was it worth the two years it took to close this case?

HALL: I feel like it was bigger than me. It was really thinking about, like, how many hundreds, thousands of people of color for, you know, hundreds of years have felt that fear and never had the opportunity to ever see any potential kind of justice. It really made me think, you know. It is a horrendous thing that happened more times than we'll ever know. And those people, our ancestors, our family members never lived, you know, a lot of them to see the day. So I just felt like I had a responsibility to be present, to see it through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: You can hear more of Melissa Hall's story and other stories of people fighting for change on Systemic from Colorado Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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