Protecting civil rights has been a priority for Idaho’s departing U.S. attorney

Wendy Olson, who has served as Idaho’s U.S. attorney since 2010, has publicly emphasized her office’s commitment to protecting people’s civil rights. That has included a marked emphasis on hate crime prosecutions, whether by her office or in coordination with state prosecutors.

Olson began her legal career prosecuting civil rights cases in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve always felt that protecting all people — and all people’s civil rights — was an important thing that the law can do,” Olson said. “It was important to me to make sure that our office was playing the role it could play.”

[Story: Idaho’s hate crime laws, born of the Aryan Nations, play different role today]

She has built relationships with local prosecutors and consults them to decide how to best proceed when hate crimes come up.

“In Idaho we’re lucky to have some really strong county prosecuting attorneys who share that vision,” Olson said. “So the opportunity to work with them, both in training and then in talking about where the appropriate place might be to prosecute a case, has been one of the more rewarding and interesting parts of being the U.S. attorney for the past  6 1/2 years.”

Both Idaho’s malicious harassment statute and the federal hate crime law cover offenses in which someone is victimized by their race, color, ancestry, national origin or religion. The federal statute also covers gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

The penalty for a federal hate crime conviction can be much more severe, up to life in prison. Under Idaho’s statute, the maximum penalty is five years in prison.

“I think it’s hard sometimes for the community, or after a person gets selected for a jury, to imagine and to wrap their heads around the idea that someone would assault another person because of their race or their sexual orientation,” Olson said. “It happens in our community.”

It’s unclear how soon President Donald Trump will pick Olson’s successor — or what kind of priorities the new administration will give that new U.S. attorney.

Olson, who has submitted her resignation and will leave office on Feb. 25, doesn’t expect the focus on hate crimes to diminish. It’s one of the highest criminal investigative priorities for the FBI, she said.

“I don’t expect that to change,” Olson said. “And when it is a priority for our investigative partners and it’s important to the community, I anticipate that this office will continue to pursue those cases.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell

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