Press Release from
State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
May 7, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-8393

Thompson/Ellis legislation will toughen penalties for hate crimes

(AUSTIN)// In an historic vote, the Texas Senate today approved legislation designed to toughen penalties for hate crimes. The vote marks the first time both the Texas House and Texas Senate have approved legislation that includes a specific, enumerated hate crimes definition. The Byrd Act will now go to the Governor.

The Senate voted in favor of HB 587, the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, legislation by Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) that will enhance penalties for crimes proven in court to be motivated by hate. The legislation will provide aid to small counties prosecuting hate murders, clarify the definition of a hate crime to conform Texas law with language upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Wisconsin v. Mitchell decision, and assign a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office as a hate crimes director.

"This is truly an historic day for the state of Texas," said Ellis. "The Texas Senate has sent a message that our state is not a safe haven for hate. This legislation will help protect all Texans from anyone who decides to act on their hate and prejudice."

Senator Ellis has led the fight to punish hate crimes in Texas. In 1993, he passed legislation creating the current hate crimes statute, and requiring local and county police departments to report hate crimes statistics to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will raise the penalty for a crime by one level if a jury has concluded during trial that the crime was motivated by hate. For instance, under current law, someone convicted of spray painting a swastika on a synagogue, a Class B misdemeanor, would be eligible for a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. If convicted under the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, the maximum punishment would be enhanced to that of a Class A misdemeanor, a $4,000 fine and 1 year sentence.

Texas' current hate crimes statute has been criticized as being too vague, overbroad, and unable to withstand constitutional challenge because of a lack of specificity in defining a hate crime. The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act would improve Texas' law by ensuring the hate crime definition closely tracks language approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1993 Wisconsin v. Mitchell case. That case defines a hate crime as one that has been proven in court to have been motivated by "the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry" of the victim. Legislation including nearly identical language passed the House last session and has passed the Senate twice, in 1993 and 1995. Currently, 43 states have hate crimes laws, including 21 that include sexual orientation in their definition.

"All crimes are not hate crimes, and all crimes are not equal," said Ellis. "What is worse, knocking over a mailbox or burning a cross on a the lawn of an African American family? Spray painting 'Go Longhorns' on a school wall, or a swastika on a synagogue? Hate crimes are acts of terrorism that target an entire community and we have the obligation to raise the penalty for those crimes, and send the signal that Texas will not tolerate crimes of hate, large or small."

While opponents claim hate crimes laws are an unconstitutional abridgement of the right to free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled otherwise. In the Wisconsin v. Mitchell decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated:

"We find no merit in this contention...[t]he prospect of a citizen suppressing his bigoted beliefs for fear that evidence of such beliefs will be introduced against him at a trial if he commits a more serious offense against a person or property. This is simply too speculative a hypothesis to support." (U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Mitchell opinion)

During the debate, Senator Ellis praised the bipartisanship and courage of his colleagues on this legislation.

"I would like to thank, in particularly, my Republican colleagues who have made this a bipartisan piece of legislation," said Ellis. "You have joined your colleagues from the House and taken a brave stand here today. I sincerely appreciate your courage and your support on this issue. With today's debate, the Senate once again seizes the mantle of leadership that is its heritage."

Senator Ellis also praised the courage and strength of the Byrd family and their efforts to bring Texans together.

"In 1998, the brutal murder of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper -- the most vicious hate crime of the post civil rights era -- shocked the nation and forced Texans to take a long look at themselves," said Ellis. "From that awful tragedy, I had the opportunity to meet and work with a wonderful family, the Byrds. The Byrd family -- mother Stella, father James, daughter Renee, nephew Darrell and sisters Louvon, Clara, Mary and Melinda -- has shown strength and fortitude in the face of tragedy that is downright humbling. Their strength and determination, I believe, has inspired us all.

"No family should have to go through what they have experienced. If this legislation spares one Texas family from experiencing the pain felt by the Byrd's, then it will be a success.

"We have come a long way together as Texans to address hatred and bigotry. Today, we have taken another step together on the long journey for justice."