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Suspect pleads not guilty in shooting of students of Palestinian descent in Vermont

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Authorities are investigating whether the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent in Vermont was a hate crime.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A 48-year-old man is being held in jail. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder. Local law enforcement is working with the Justice Department on the investigation.

MARTÍNEZ: Vermont Public's Brittany Patterson is covering this. Brittany, tell us what happened last week.

BRITTANY PATTERSON, BYLINE: Sure. So authorities say the three college students were visiting one of the victims' relatives here in Vermont over the Thanksgiving break - something they had done before. And they were doing typical college student break things - hanging out, eating, relaxing. Early on Saturday evening, the men were walking down a residential street, and two of them were wearing the traditional Palestinian scarf. They were speaking a mixture of English and Arabic, and authorities say they were confronted by a white man with a handgun. Police say Jason Eaton did not speak before opening fire.

MARTÍNEZ: Who are the victims, and how are they doing?

PATTERSON: Yeah, we've learned a lot more about these young men in recent days. One of them is Hisham Awartani. He goes to Brown University in Rhode Island. He's a math and archaeology major. Kinnan Abdalhamid attends Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He's studying biology. He runs track. And Tahseen Ahmad goes to Trinity College in Connecticut. He's also a math major. He's also pre-med and recently qualified to be an EMT. These boys have been friends for 12 years. They went to Quaker school together in the West Bank, and their family describes them as polite, generous, the brightest of the bright. You know, they did model U.N. together. The family said yesterday that they were grateful for the charges, but they fear that the young men were targeted for being Arab Americans. Elizabeth Price is Hisham's mom, and she spoke to NPR from her home in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

ELIZABETH PRICE: My husband didn't want Hisham to come back for Christmas 'cause he thought America would be safe - safer than in Palestine. And my husband is so bitter. He was worried about the boys being targeted as being Palestinian, but he thought in Burlington that wouldn't happen.

PATTERSON: As of yesterday, all of the men remained in the ICU. Hisham's family said that the doctors told them it's unlikely he will be able to use his legs again. And I'll note Burlington's mayor spoke with President Joe Biden yesterday, who also pledged additional federal resources.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, we know that authorities haven't revealed the suspect's motive, but they are investigating all this as a possible hate crime?

PATTERSON: They are. And I want to note Vermont doesn't have a standalone hate crime charge. Instead, prosecutors can add what they call as a hate crime enhancement, and that's if the suspect's actions, they believe, are motivated by bias toward a protected class, like race. And the bar is really high with these hate crime enhancements. The state has to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. They need a lot of evidence, and authorities say that may not happen. If added to a charge, one of these enhancements could increase the criminal penalties that a suspect faces, although I'll note, in this case, the suspect, Eaton, already faces 20 to life for each of those attempted murder charges. So a state hate crime charge in this case wouldn't affect his sentence. And federal prosecutors could also bring a hate crime charge.

MARTÍNEZ: And with Eaton - the suspect - how did he get the gun?

PATTERSON: Yeah, so we learned a little more about him yesterday. Eaton himself is new to Vermont, according to authorities. Police say they've only had one interaction with him. It was a traffic stop, and there was nothing to note. And we learned that he purchased the gun legally a few months ago through a licensed firearms dealer in the state, and that sale was not flagged.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, that's Vermont Public's Brittany Patterson. Brittany, thanks.

PATTERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Brittany Patterson