The shooting deaths of eight people at Asian-run spas in Georgia this week triggered a vigorous national debate Thursday over whether the mass killing amounted to a hate crime, a fraught conversation that echoed from the halls of Congress to the streets of Atlanta, with potentially significant implications for the prosecution of the 21-year-old suspect.

The reckoning came a day after authorities in Cherokee County – the first of two locations where people were shot dead Tuesday – appeared to play down the racial dimensions of a rampage that claimed the lives of six women of Asian descent. A sheriff’s office spokesman had said that the suspect was having “a bad day” and indicated that “sex addiction,” not race, was probably the driving factor.

Those remarks were sharply challenged on Thursday by Asian American community leaders, who denounced them as “an attempt to protect the shooter,” as well as by Democratic politicians and law enforcement experts.

The spokesman, Capt. Jay Baker, was removed from the case Thursday as the sheriff’s office expressed “regret” over his choice of words. Meanwhile, police officials in Atlanta – the second scene of the mass shooting- appeared to distance themselves from the comments, noting that a racial motive was being considered, among others.

“Our investigation is looking at everything,” said Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. “Nothing is off the table.”

The killings came amid a national surge in anti-Asian violence that has coincided with the global spread of the coronavirus, a pandemic that former president Donald Trump and his followers derisively describe as “the Chinese virus” or “kung flu.”

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That rhetoric – and whether it contributed to the hostile environment in which the Atlanta-area shootings played out – was front and center in often tense hearings Thursday on Capitol Hill.

During a House panel focused on the rise of anti-Asian American discrimination, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., was visibly emotional in responding to a Republican congressman’s opening statement that accused Democrats of trying to police free speech.

“Your president, your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other countries that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s eye on the back of Asian Americans across the country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” Meng said to Rep. Chip Roy, Texas, as her voice began to rise and tears filled her eyes. “This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice away from us.”

Roy said that “all Americans deserve protection” in the days after the shootings, which were spread over three spas. To make his point about the need for law and order, Roy cited “old sayings in Texas” that celebrated lynchings.

“We believe in justice. There’s old sayings in Texas about ‘Find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree,’ ” he said.

Roy’s comments drew blowback from Democrats and critics who slammed the congressman for his use of a violent, racist trope.

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The question of how the alleged shooter will be held to justice is one that investigators and prosecutors are weighing. One of the biggest unknowns is whether hate-crime legislation will be invoked.

Until last year, Georgia was one of a small handful of states that lacked its own hate-crimes law. That changed after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot dead after three White men pursued him while he was jogging. The uproar prompted the state legislature to act, and the spa shootings give prosecutors the first high-profile chance to put it into action.

Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican who helped shepherd the bill into law, said it was intended to allow for especially stiff penalties for crimes in which “the perpetrator’s prejudices and biases are attacks not only on the victims but on all of society.”

“Thank goodness law enforcement will have the ability to charge this as a hate crime if the facts support that,” he said in an interview.

Protected categories under the law include not only race but also gender, religion and national origin. That makes it relatively broad, said Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel Cino, and potentially applicable to this week’s shootings.

“It could certainly be the watershed moment of having a law on the books versus actually using the law on the books,” she said.

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Cino said that investigators will be looking closely at previous statements and social media posts by the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, for evidence of bias. Even absent that, she said, prosecutors will have plenty to go on by the nature of the targets he chose.

“The majority of the victims are women, and they are Asian,” she said. “Those are two protected statuses.”

Long was charged with eight counts of murder on Wednesday, and police said he had confessed to the crimes. In Georgia, the death penalty is one possible sentence for murder, along with life imprisonment with or without parole. Adding hate-crime charges to the mix, Cino said, could give prosecutors valuable leverage in any plea negotiations.

Long’s first court appearance, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, was canceled after he waived it in writing through his attorney, according to the Cherokee County district attorney’s office.

J. Daran Burns, a Georgia lawyer, was appointed to represent Long by the Cherokee County Indigent Defense office, his firm said Thursday.

“Our condolences are with the victims and their families,” Burns said in a statement Thursday morning. “We are working on behalf of our client, Robert Aaron Long, to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding this incident.”

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No other court hearings are scheduled in the Cherokee County case, and none have been announced yet for the cases in Atlanta.

As the investigation continues, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris planned to meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta on Friday during a previously planned trip to the city to tout the benefits of the newly signed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Biden intends to “talk about his commitment to combating xenophobia, intolerance and hate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The president on Thursday ordered flags at the White House and federal property to be flown at half-staff “as a mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of violence” in the spa shootings.

The order, which came in a proclamation, applies through sunset Monday. It came as vigils for the victims were held nationwide Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Biden had responded in January to the reports of rising anti-Asian violence by issuing an executive memo that instructed the Justice Department to expand collection of hate-crime data. But such an effort has long been difficult and incomplete because the department relies on reporting from more than 15,000 local law enforcement agencies, many of which lack funding, training and motivation to investigate such crimes and report them, experts said.

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Attorney General Merrick Garland addressed the Georgia spa shootings in a video call with Asian American advocates that lasted about 45 minutes on Wednesday, according to people who participated.

Garland, who was confirmed to the job last week, empathized with the pain and anger the advocates expressed, said John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, and “made it clear how seriously they took this issue.” But he did not offer specific policies or strategies the department would pursue, the participants said.

On Capitol Hill, Meng and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, introduced legislation last week that would require the Justice Department to appoint an official to oversee a review of all hate crimes reported during the pandemic, among other measures.

Psaki said Thursday that Biden supports the aims of the legislation.

Some conservatives have warned against a rush to judgment in the Georgia shootings or other high-profile cases involving Asian American victims. At the House hearing, Charles Fain Lehman, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, denounced race-based attacks but said a reported surge in violence against Asian Americans should be viewed amid a rise in violent crime nationwide over the past year.

Democrats in the hearing aired a video report on an Asian American family, including a 2-year-old girl, who was attacked at a Texas grocery store last year in what federal authorities called a hate crime related to anger over the coronavirus.

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Democrats and witnesses expressed outrage at the comments from Baker, the Cherokee County sheriff’s spokesman, which they said had minimized the severity of the crime and erased its likely origins.

“Take your heads out of the sand,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

Daniel Dae Kim, an Asian American actor who was testifying at the hearing, also disputed Baker’s description of the killings.

“These were places associated with Asian people,” Kim said. “If this was a synagogue or a Black church, and someone shot up those places, would we really be asking whether this was a hate crime or not?”

The FBI has said it is closely coordinating with local and state investigators and that it is ready to open its own investigation if evidence of a federal civil rights violation emerges.

In an interview Thursday with NPR, FBI Director Christopher Wray called the shooting “a heartbreaking incident” but said that “it does not appear” to have been “racially motivated.” He stressed, however, that he would defer to state and local officials.

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Those officials on Thursday offered little new information about their investigation. Two days after the killings, authorities had released the names only of the four people killed in Cherokee County. The four who were killed in Atlanta had not been named.

“As soon as we are 100 percent and notifications are made, then it’ll be released,” Hampton, Atlanta’s deputy chief, said toward the end of an eight-minute news conference.

He would not comment on a question about the victims’ citizenship status or whether they had family in the area or country.

Cherokee County authorities released their four names Wednesday: Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54. A fifth victim in Cherokee County, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, survived.

Authorities have said that Long may have visited the spas that he targeted before and that he said he set out to eliminate a “temptation.”

But experts said Thursday that even if that was a motive, it does not exclude the possibility of racism, xenophobia, misogyny or other prejudices as major contributing factors. And it should not, they said, prevent prosecutors from pursing hate-crime charges if that’s where the evidence leads.

“You can have mixed motives” and still be prosecuted for a hate crime, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “The prosecution has to establish not that there weren’t any other motives, but that at least one of the motives was prejudicial.”

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The Washington Post’s Hannah Knowles, Devlin Barrett, Jonathan Krohn, John Wagner, Mark Berman and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.