The recent execution of a 49-year-old man in Texas drew a line under a grisly crime that provided a template for hate crime laws in Texas and across the nation.
John William King, an avowed racist, was executed by lethal injection in Texas on April 24. The execution was carried out 21 years after King and two other white men dragged James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old black man, to his death behind a pickup truck.
Byrd was chained to the truck and dragged to his death over nearly three miles in the woods outside Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. The men who killed him left Byrd’s mangled body by a roadside.
The murder shocked the nation and shed a painful light on race relations in the small town on the Louisiana border, NBC reported.
King made no secret of his racist beliefs. His body was covered in hateful tattoos, and Nazi symbols. One featured a black person hanging by a noose from a tree, NBC reported.
A jury convicted King of capital murder in January 1999. NBC reported the execution represented the first time that a white man had received the death penalty for killing a black person in the modern history of Texas.
Byrd’s death was the catalyst for hate crimes laws both in Texas and at a federal level. While the federal act is often associated with the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was beaten to death in Wyoming, the law’s full name is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, CNN reported.
While the Civil Rights Act of 1968 gave federal prosecution of anyone who is hurt or interfered with because of her or his race, religion or nationality, the law defined acts against certain groups as specific crimes.
The federal statute defines a hate crime as hurting someone based on their “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin,” states the Justice Department.
The crime must also be “committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.”
Texas enacted the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001. The Texas legislation allows prosecutors to attach a sentencing enhancement to an alleged hate crime, adding time behind bars if authorities prove the accused acted intentionally out of bias toward the victim’s perceived race, color, religion, disability, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference.
Recent studies suggested prosecutions rarely bring hate crime charges and few are successful. A study by ProPublica found from 2010 through 2015, just 981 cases were reported to police in Texas as potential hate crimes. ProPublica looked at the records kept by the Texas Judicial Branch and confirmed just five hate crime convictions in that time.
It is often a challenge for prosecutors to prove the intent of the accused and they decide against seeking the enhancements. Clear cut cases like that of King are rare.