TEXAS governor signs hate crimes bill into law

Saturday, May 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN (AP) _ Gov. Rick Perry has long questioned whether Texas needed a tougher law cracking down on hate crimes against minorities, homosexuals and others, arguing that designating ``new classes of citizens'' could be divisive for the state.

Despite those concerns, Perry on Friday signed into law the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, named for the black man who was dragged to death by three whites in 1998.

``I just don't know how it's going to affect us in the future,'' Perry said. ``As governor of a very large, diverse state, in all matters it is desirable to seek common ground, common ground for the common good.''

The act strengthens penalties for crimes motivated by the victim's race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age or national origin. It was approved by the Legislature on Thursday after years of debate.

Texas already had a hate-crimes law 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. Some prosecutors have said it is too vague to enforce.

Two years ago, a hate crimes measure stalled after critics complained it created unnecessary distinctions for homosexuals. Then-Gov. George W. Bush refused to support it, saying all crimes are hate crimes.

Perry, a Republican, said he knew some Texans would disagree with his decision.

``I would ask them to try to do what I have done, tried to walk in another person's shoes,'' he said.

The Free Market Foundation, which describes itself as dedicated to strengthening families, spoke out against the bill Friday. Under the new law, an adult male who is in one of the designated classes could receive more protection if he is a crime victim than a 7-year-old, said group president Kelly Shackelford. ``That is obscene,'' Shackelford said.

Perry was joined by Byrd's parents at the signing ceremony. Stella Byrd called it the best Mother's Day gift she has received.

``If it can stop someone, or stop some mother, from having the same pain I've had, it was well worth the work,'' she said.

Since Byrd's death, the parents said, they have had to frequently clean his grave of racist notes. Stella Byrd said hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan had posed for photos at the cemetery and ``left a placard there saying, 'We've been here.'''

``They ... did everything to his grave. We just need something to wake them up. By passing this bill, it did,'' she said.

Two of Byrd's killers are on death row; the third was sentenced to life in prison.

Perry, who could have let the bill become law without signing it, said one couldn't help but be moved when talking with the Byrd family about the tragedy.

``If it doesn't touch you, you have a very, very cold heart,'' he said.