LGBTQ advocates want officials to investigate murder of gay Cedar Park woman as hate crime
Calls have increased for police and prosecutors to investigate the killing of 24-year-old Akira Ross as a hate crime.
Ross, who was gay, was shot outside a Cedar Park gas station on June 2. Bradley Stanford, 23, has been charged with murder. According to a probable cause affidavit for his arrest, Stanford yelled a homophobic slur before allegedly shooting Ross.
In a June 4 statement, Cedar Park police acknowledged "there was some sort of verbal exchange" before the shooting, but stopped short of calling the incident a hate crime.
"To not investigate this as a hate crime would be a dishonor to Akira’s memory and to our entire community," Chloe Goodman, a staff member with Equality Texas, told Cedar Park City Council members at a meeting Thursday.
“Akira Ross was a real, whole person with a beautiful personality. ... She was killed in large part because one man reduced her whole life to a homophobic slur, which was probably the last thing she heard," Goodman told council members. "Classifying her death as a hate crime acknowledges her place in the LGBTQ community, and that this senseless act of violence was not random."
Goodman was among a dozen LGBTQ+ advocates and community members who spoke about Ross' death at the meeting.
"Knowing that if someone saw me holding my girlfriend's hand ... I could end up dead; she can end up dead. It’s tough," Sarah Herzer, a former Cedar Park resident, said. "What do you do about that?"
Herzer said she hoped council members could find a way to make Cedar Park feel safe for people like her.
"If this was not a hate crime, what qualifies?" said Cedar Park resident Rebecca Cruz, who is the vice president of Veterans for Equality. "If it was at a pride parade rather than a gas station? If it was one of the 'Queer Eye' guys rather than a Cedar Park citizen?"
Cedar Park Mayor Jim Penniman-Morin thanked the speakers and said council members recognize Ross' murder was senseless.
"We use that word a lot about murders, but this one feels so much more especially senseless," he said. "I think part of what is so hard for members of our community is the sense that maybe there was a motive there, and they realize that it could just as well be them, whether because they're Black or they're a woman or they're queer."
He said city officials don't have the authority to classify Ross' death as a hate crime; that would be up to the district attorney.
The Williamson County District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to KUT's request for comment.
The District Attorney's Office is "ethically limited in what they can say speculatively or in a predictive mode about what sorts of charges or enhancements would be brought," UT School of Law professor Jennifer Laurin told KUT. "It would be ethically inappropriate for prosecutors to characterize something as legally a hate crime before they're confident that they had probable cause to pursue that charge."
Laurin said the decision to prosecute a hate crime in Texas can be tricky.
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure allows for what's called a "hate crime enhancement."
Laurin said to successfully pursue a hate crime enhancement, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an offense was committed because of bias or prejudice.
"It's that sort of intent or motivation that ultimately can be challenging to prove," she said.
If prosecutors successfully prove an offense was committed because of bias or prejudice, the punishment for the offense is increased to the punishment for the next higher category of offense. For example, a second-degree felony punishment range would be increased to a first-degree felony punishment range.
State law does not, however, mandate an increased punishment range or mandatory minimum imprisonment for first-degree felonies — the same category of offense Stanford is charged with.
Between 2011 and 2021, Cedar Park police investigated 24 hate crimes, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Four of those hate crimes were motivated by bias against sexual orientation.
A memorial service and vigil for Ross will be held at the Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church in Cedar Park on July 2 at 6:30 p.m.