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  Texas Senate Passes Hate Crimes Bill

By Natalie Gott
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2001; 4:28 a.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas –– One of the first things the sponsor of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act did after the Texas Senate passed the bill was call Byrd's mother to tell her the news.

"I'm very happy," Stella Byrd, whose son was dragged to his death from a pickup truck in 1998, said after Monday's vote. "At last something positive happened from it. I think what happened to my son, and knowing there's a bill named after it will help me cope better."

The hate-crimes measure would strengthen penalties for crimes motivated by race, religion, color, gender, disabilities, sexual preference, age or national origin. It now goes back to the House for final approval.

Two years ago, then-Gov. George W. Bush refused to support the measure, saying all crimes are hate crimes. Democrats attacked him for that decision during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was chained to the back of the truck by three white men and dragged along a bumpy country road outside Jasper, about 125 miles northeast of Houston.

John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer, were sentenced to death in the case. Shawn Allen Berry received a life sentence.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said nobody should have to go through what the Byrd family endured.

"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 Texas to take a look at themselves," he said.

The bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate in a 20-10 vote. All 15 Democrats and five Republicans, including acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, voted for the measure.

"I felt like it was probably very important that we send a message to the world that crimes committed from motivation of hatred are not to be tolerated in the state of Texas," Ratliff said.

Gov. Rick Perry said he would decide whether to sign the bill when it arrives at his desk.

"I think it's time for Texas to come together to pass a piece of legislation that clearly sends a message that we're not going to allow for hateful acts against Texas citizens," he said.

Early on in the legislative session, however, he argued that Texans were adequately protected under the current law and said the Byrd measure would create "new classes of citizens."

Texas already has a hate-crimes bill that increases penalties if a crime is proven to be "motivated by bias or prejudice" but it does not list specific categories of people who would be protected.

Under current law, for instance, someone convicted of spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue would face a maximum sentence of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. Under the bill approved Monday, the maximum punishment would increase to a $4,000 fine and a one-year sentence.

In cases of bodily assault determined to be hate crimes, the maximum penalty of a $4,000 fine and a one-year jail sentence would remain unchanged. But the measure would establish a minimum jail term of 180 days.

Democrats have been struggling for years to get the bill approved by the Senate. A similar bill that passed the House in 1999 was turned down by the Senate after critics complained it created unnecessary distinctions for homosexuals.

A failed amendment by Republican state Sen. Florence Shapiro would have eliminated the list of groups covered under the bill and instead targeted the motive of the crime.

"The exclusion of many and the inclusion of some is not the right way to go about this," Shapiro said.

Sen. David Bernsen, a Democrat, said it was important for the bill to list specific groups that are targeted by criminals.

"Isn't it true that we pick those lists because criminals are picking those lists?" he asked. "They are picking the categories for us."

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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