MORE THAN A YEAR HAS PASSED since a middle-aged black man named James Byrd, Jr., was tied to the back of a pickup and dragged to his death. But the crime and its victim remain in the public consciousness and conscience. The first of the three accused killers—all avowed white supremacists—to go on trial has been convicted of capital murder, the first time in Texas history that a Caucasian received a death sentence for killing an African American. One can ponder whether this milestone represents how far we have come or how far we have to go.
Crimes break laws, but sometimes they also make laws. The more horrific the crime, the stronger is society’s need to respond with enhanced sanctions. This impulse lay behind the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in the Seventy-sixth Legislature last spring, which mandated stronger penalties for offenses motivated by hatred of a particular race, sexual orientation, or other such categories. But the very enumeration of these categories caused the bill’s defeat in a Senate committee; unlike so many other proposals to toughen criminal laws, this one failed to pass.
The fate of the Byrd bill became the most emotional issue of the legislative session. It provoked a heartfelt debate in the House, which approved the bill, and then a work stoppage in the Senate, followed by futile attempts at compromise. It divided the Capitol along partisan lines, with Republicans arguing that punishment should not depend upon who the victim is (George W. Bush specifically objected to including sexual orientation as a category) and Democrats countering with exceptions, such as the law making the murder of a child younger than seven a capital offense. Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential aspirant Bill Bradley entered the battle by lobbying for its passage, and the New York Times wrote about the hate-crimes controversy on page 1, but to no avail: Democrats could not give up the categories—their absence renders the state’s 1993 hate-crimes law unconstitutionally vague since it does not indicate what kind of hatred will trigger the stiffer penalties—and Republicans could not support them.
The battle over hate crimes, though, is far from over. The memory of what happened to James Byrd, Jr., will be kept alive by the trials of the other accused killers this fall. If Bush becomes the GOP presidential nominee, Democrats will make his opposition to hate crimes an issue (although the governor did aid the late efforts at compromise). And by the time the presidential race is over, the next legislative session will be just weeks away. Will the cycle start anew? The senator who sponsored the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, Rodney Ellis of Houston, announced his intentions last spring while conceding defeat: “I’ll be back.”