Does Texas Punish Hate Crimes?

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Two women who were romantically involved were found shot in the head in Portland, Texas, on June 23.  One of them, Mollie Judith Olgin, died of her wounds.  The other, Mary Christine Chapa, survived in serious condition.  They were 19 and 18 years old, respectively.  As of today, Chapa was still in the hospital, and a sketch of a suspect in the crime was released.

While police investigating the crime have not yet provided a motive for the act, early reports indicated that it was not a random act.  Further, because the two young women were in a same-sex relationship, the question has arisen whether the attack was motivated by bigotry or prejudice.  

If the shooting were, in fact, a hate crime, does Texas have laws on the books specifically targeting hate crimes? Find out below the jump.Yes.

In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which was then signed into law.  The Act was a response to the murder of James Byrd, Jr.  In 1998, Byrd, an African-American in Jasper, Texas, was chained to the back of a truck by three white men, and dragged three miles to his death.  At the time, Texas already had a hate crimes law, but there was concern that, if challenged, the law could be found outside the boundaries of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 47 (1993) and unconstitutional.  

Public outrage and indignation to Byrd's murder was swift and international in scope.  In Texas, pressure ramped up to strengthen the existing law, and in 2001, under the leadership of Sen. Senfronia Thompson, the Act was passed to ensure that crimes committed with the same or similar hate-based motivations as those found in the Byrd case would be punished appropriately or successfully deterred.  

At the time, Sen. Rodney Ellis, who had shepherded the earlier 1993 hate crimes law, had stated:

“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.”

He went on:

“The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will send a clear signal that Texas will not tolerate those who commit crimes of hatred, and possibly prevent the type of violence we saw in Jasper.”

Like other hate crimes law around the nation, the Act creates enhanced penalties for various crimes if those crimes were motivated by the victim's race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age, or national origin.  This means, for instance, that someone committing a crime that would normally be considered a misdemeanor could be convicted of a felony for the same act if it were found to be motivated by any of the above considerations, and therefore, could face significantly greater punishment (e.g.: imprisonment vs. fine).

In addition to meting out what is appropriate punishment for truly despicable crimes, hate crimes laws can carry a deterrent effect.  Moreover, they can send a signal about what type of society citizens inhabit – one that values traditionally marginalized citizens versus one that does not.

Hate crimes laws are not without their problems, however.  As mentioned earlier, they have to be tailored appropriately so that they are not struck down as unconstitutional.  The Mitchell case above, for instance, concerned a free-speech attack to the Wisconsin law at issue.  Additionally, proving bias of both the right kind and magnitude in order to secure a conviction under a hate crimes statute can be difficult from an evidentiary standpoint.  For that reason, prosecutors are sometimes loathe to bring the charges in the first place, and even when they do, they will use the statute as leverage to secure a plea bargain, rather than take the case all the way to a jury.  While this seems to be a brush back to prosecutors, the risk calculus from the magnitude of the punishment will often drive defendants to accept a plea bargain (with significant punishment regardless) rather than attempt to seek an acquittal from a jury.

The Statesman summarized some of the problems as well as hate crimes statistics since the passage of the Act in a January article.

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