SANTA ANA — As a youth in segregated North Carolina, Ron Coley recalls times he was chased home by white teen-agers hurling rocks. In college, he remembers being shunned by fellow students because of the color of his skin.
But the 45-year-old analyst with the Orange County administrative office says the most stinging blow of racial discrimination came earlier this month. Someone, possibly a co-worker, used an orange grease pencil to scrawl "KKK" on a framed poster of two black children that hangs in Coley's private office.
Coley, who has worked for the county for three years, said he considered his past brushes with racism affronts to all African Americans. But this was different.
"This was obviously directed at me, Ron Coley, and it was a true sense of personal violation," said the former Marine Corps pilot.
Coley's experience is not all that uncommon in Orange County.
There were an estimated 180 hate-related incidents reported in 1994, according to the county's Human Relations Commission, which is expected to release a formal report next month.
Few cases are prosecuted in Orange County, however, despite California's 1992 law that adds as much as three years in prison to sentences if it is determined a crime was committed because of a victim's race, gender, age, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Glazier, who oversees hate crime cases, said there are many obstacles to prosecution. Suspects are not always identified, many incidents are not actual crimes, and it is often difficult to prove the bias motivated an illegal act.
The Orange County district attorney's office reviewed a record 22 hate crime cases in 1994 but cited insufficient evidence when it rejected 16 of the cases as potential hate crimes. Most of the rejected cases went forward on other charges, such as assault.
"It's not enough to just say someone used a racial slur," Glazier said.
For example, Glazier said, two men might sling racial slurs at each other during a brawl--but it's an assault case unless prosecutors can prove one person attacked the other because of racial bias.
Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said cracking down on hate crimes is a priority in his office.
"Hate crimes can tear a community apart and we won't stand for that," Capizzi said.
But victims, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and even judges often disagree on what constitutes a hate crime.
Last August, for example, someone in a crowd of youths shouted a racial epithet before Ruben Charles Vaughan III, 15, an African American football player at Santa Margarita High School, was stabbed seven times and beaten.
The victim and his family were backed by African American and Latino activists when they demanded hate crime charges be filed against two defendants. Even Judge Pamela L. Iles of Municipal Court in Laguna Niguel took the unusual step of urging prosecutors to consider filing hate crime charges after she reviewed the case.
But prosecutors concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove a hate crime, saying the slur amounted to fighting words among students from rival high schools.
It's a case that still angers community activists. Eugene Wheeler, president of 100 Black Men of Orange County, says Capizzi should prove his dedication to fighting hate crimes by allowing juries to decide the issue.
Art Montez, spokesman for the local branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens, agreed. "I think if groups of blacks were setting on white kids, you'd see a different response," he said.
Capizzi said he is aware of the criticism, but believes it would be unethical to file hate crime charges that prosecutors do not believe they can prove.
"No matter what we do, someone is going to be unhappy. But we are willing to stand up to that criticism," he said.
Others offer a different assessment of law enforcement's response. Many Orange County gays and lesbians--long the targets of hate crimes--say the situation has greatly improved.
"I think we have a long way to go to erase intolerance, but 10 years ago no one bothered to complain because no one would do anything. And now that has changed," said Alex Wentzel, a South County gay rights activist.
Gays' trust in authorities was bolstered by a high-profile 1993 gay-bashing case, in which two men were convicted of brutally beating a victim walking on Laguna Beach because they believed he was gay.
In another high-profile case making its way through the courts, prosecutors have charged Jonathan Kinsey, 19, with murder and a hate crime in the slaying of an African American and the shooting and injuring of two Latinos in an earlier incident. Kinsey has pleaded not guilty.
Wheeler and other activists applaud prosecutors' efforts in the Kinsey case and plan to watch it closely.