From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
March 5, 1999
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Senator Ellis condemns Horrific Slaying of Gay Man in Alabama
Brutal murder further evidence of need for tough, clearly defined hate crimes law

AUSTIN (03/5/99) -- State Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today condemned the horrific murder of Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama and called for a crackdown on hate crimes. Senator Ellis is the author of SB 275, the James Byrd, Jr. Act, comprehensive legislation to punish and prevent hate crimes in Texas.

"The vicious slaying of Billy Jack Gaither is further proof that strong, clear hate crimes laws are desperately needed to protect us all from hatred and violence," said Ellis. "It is a brutal reminder that some people in this nation walk around with a target on their back, simply because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. "

Alabama law enforcement officials say that Steven Mullins, 25, and Charles Butler, Jr., 21, beat Mr. Gaither to death with an axe handle, then set his body on fire. Both have reportedly confessed, but even if prosecutors can prove the killing was motivated by Gaither's sexual orientation, it isn't a hate crime under Alabama law.

The brutality of hate crimes against gays and lesbians is alarming. Last October, Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally murdered simply because he was gay. Dr. Raymond Teske, a criminology professor at Sam Houston State University, has found that the "most serious and vicious hate crimes acts are committed toward gays and lesbians." Nationwide, 1102 hate crimes against gays and lesbians were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In Texas, 1-in-5 hate crimes are perpetrated against gays and lesbians.

"We should not have to wait until someone is killed to recognize the danger hate crimes pose to our society," said Ellis. "Everyday, smaller acts of hatred are committed. The only way to stop the cycle of violence before it starts is to enact laws that send a clear signal -- early on -- that crimes of hate will not be tolerated."

The James Byrd, Jr. Act will clarify the definition of a hate crime to include crimes motivated race, ethnicity, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Texas' current hate crimes law has been called too vague, raising concerns that it would not hold up to an appeal. The bill will also provide state assistance to small counties prosecuting hate murders and require additional training to help police recognize and report hate crimes. Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) is the House sponsor of the James Byrd, Jr. Act (HB 938).

"Prosecutors need a tool that will punish hate, not one that causes confusion," said Ellis. "Any hate crimes law must include sexual orientation, or we will send the signal to hate mongers and bigots that it is open season on gays and lesbians. The James Byrd, Jr. Act will help protect Texans from this sort of hate and violence, and severely punish those who violate the law."