A Utah man who is accused of attacking a Latino man and his son with a metal pole last year after announcing his desire to “kill Mexicans” was charged with federal hate crimes on Thursday, a move celebrated by local officials who criticized the state’s hate crime law as ineffective.
Federal prosecutors charged the Utah man, Alan D. Covington, with three counts of hate crime assault, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to a statement from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah.
The indictment alleges that Mr. Covington, 50, walked into a tire store in Salt Lake City in November, shouted that he wanted to “kill Mexicans” and then attacked Jose Lopez and his son Luis with a metal pole, causing “bodily injury.” He also swung the pole at a third man, Angel Lopez-Toria, who was uninjured, prosecutors allege.
Mr. Covington was charged last year with three felonies, including second-degree assault. But law enforcement officials were frustrated that he could not be charged with a hate crime; in Utah, the hate crime law can be applied only to misdemeanors, not felony crimes like murder or a violent assault.
In the days after the attack, Sim Gill, the Salt Lake County district attorney, denounced the Utah law as “counterintuitive” and something that “underscores the insult to the injury.”
On Thursday, he and other local officials celebrated the federal indictment and said they hoped it would spur change at the state level.
“This simply confirms and validates what we have been saying over and over again,” Mr. Gill said in an interview. “In the state of Utah, there is not a workable or applicable hate crime statute that our community can reasonably rely upon, and that is the deficit that has existed here for many, many years.”
Mike Brown, the Salt Lake City police chief, said in a statement that he was “incredibly proud” of his investigative staff, “whose work in conjunction with the F.B.I. brought this indictment to fruition.”
Jackie Biskupski, the mayor of Salt Lake City, praised the Police Department for requesting F.B.I. assistance in its “swift and thorough” investigation of the alleged attack on the Lopez family.
“It is time Utah adopt comprehensive hate crime legislation to give law enforcement and investigators the tools they need to prosecute these types of crime,” she said in a statement.
Mr. Covington is being represented by the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, a state-level public defense group. His lawyer there, Matthew Barraza, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Scott Wilson, the interim federal public defender, said the District Court had not yet determined whether Mr. Covington was eligible for federal public defense.
According to charging documents filed at the state level last year, Mr. Covington, who was homeless at the time of the attack, walked into the Lopez family business, Lopez Tires, announced his desire to kill and then swung the metal pole at Jose Lopez, striking him in the arm and causing lacerations.
When Mr. Lopez’s son Luis tried to intervene, the suspect swung the pole and struck him in the head, causing lacerations and fractures to his face. When the police arrived a short time later, they found Luis bleeding profusely from his head and “gurgling and coughing on his own blood,” according to the charging documents.
Mr. Gill, the county’s district attorney, said his office would determine in the coming days whether to continue the state-level prosecution of Mr. Covington. The state charges against him carry a maximum possible sentence of 26 years in prison.
“Our historical practice is to generally dismiss state charges in lieu of the federal charges,” he said. “If we are providing something different than what they are going to focus on, then the cases would not be identical and could be mutually complementary.”