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OPINION

A slap on the wrist for a bigoted assault in East Boston

In moving victim’s impact statements, Vasquez and her daughter both said that they live in fear of speaking Spanish in public and being targeted for their accents.

A screenshot from surveillance video shows a woman (left) crossing the street before assaulting a mother and her daughter in East Boston on Feb. 15, 2020.Lawyers for Civil Rights

What is the appropriate punishment for a hate crime?

For the Latinx mother and her teen daughter who were allegedly assaulted for speaking Spanish in East Boston two years ago in what fits the definition of a hate crime, justice hasn’t been fully served.

In that incident, two white women from Revere, Jenny Leigh Ennamorati and Stephanie M. Armstrong, allegedly attacked the mother and her daughter without provocation near the Maverick Square T station. Ennamorati and Armstrong allegedly began shouting at the victims seemingly because they were speaking Spanish. According to Ms. Vasquez (who asked to be identified by her last name only), she and her daughter were punched, kicked, and bitten by the suspects, who yelled at them: “Go back to your country” and “This is America! Speak English!” According to police, Ennamorati and Armstrong thought Vasquez and her daughter were mocking them in Spanish, even though they couldn’t understand the language. The altercation was captured by a nearby business’s surveillance camera.

Both suspects were charged with two counts of assault and battery and two counts of violating another person’s civil rights with bodily injury — all misdemeanor charges. Ennamorati was additionally charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (footwear, in this case), which is a felony.

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Stephanie Armstrong (left) and Jenny Ennamorati appeared on March 9, 2020, on charges of assault and battery and civil rights violations, during their arraignment held at East Boston District Court. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

But last week, it was announced Ennamorati’s case was resolved via a “disparate plea,” in which prosecutors and defense attorneys make their own recommendations and a judge ultimately comes to a decision. Ennamorati admitted to “sufficient facts” in all five charges. Prosecutors wanted Ennamorati to get two years probation and 50 hours of community work served in the immigrant community affected by the hate crime. But an East Boston Municipal Court judge sentenced her to 15 months probation and a substance abuse evaluation. If she meets the conditions of probation, Ennamorati’s charges will be dismissed. (Armstrong intends to take her case to trial.)

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It’s a disappointment and a missed opportunity that the judge ignored the community service possibility for Ennamorati, because it would have addressed the community harm caused by this hateful incident. Remediation of hate crimes has to engage the community or the protected class affected in some shape or form.

“The victims felt strongly that this crime went far beyond the physical assault,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, the nonprofit providing legal aid to the victims. “It was an attack on them and, by extension, on their entire community.”

It’s clear the assault was rooted in bias and targeted a fundamental aspect of Vasquez and her daughter’s identity.

East Boston is the only majority-Latino neighborhood in the city. It would have been a measure of justice for the victims if the judge had required Ennamorati to work and interact with the robust immigrant community in East Boston in a meaningful way.

In moving victim’s impact statements, Vasquez and her daughter both said that they live in fear of speaking Spanish in public and being targeted for their accents. “We felt safe because we live in a diverse community,” said Vasquez. “I feel intense fear when walking past the location where this happened, which is an area I would visit often because this is my neighborhood,” said her daughter. “This has led to feelings of depression, isolation, and distrust in other people.”

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A woman who is identified only as Ms. Vasquez speaks in a press conference with Lawyers for Civil Rights on Feb. 25, 2020. Days before, she and her 15-year-old daughter were physically attacked, allegedly for speaking Spanish in the Maverick Square section of East Boston.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The act of coming forward to denounce a hate crime, identify the suspects, and press charges is no small thing. Vasquez and her daughter deserve credit for their courage.

Here’s why: Hate crimes have been trending upward in Massachusetts — there were 385 hate crimes reported in 2020, up from 376 in 2019. But hate crimes are not only typically underreported, they’re also under-prosecuted, according to lawmakers who want to update the state’s hate crime statutes. A bill would simplify and clarify the two sections of state law that address offenses that involve racial bias by combining them, and it would also add protected classes, like immigration status and gender.

Sellstrom believes the legislation is a helpful step but not a silver bullet. “The problem with hate crimes is not primarily with how the law is written, it’s how it’s enforced — or not enforced,” he said.

Justice is often imperfect, if it’s achieved at all. In this case, while the punishment may have fallen short, the publicity around it may prevent other hate crimes. One can only hope.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.