Race and the Law: Examining the Hate Crime Laws in Texas

Texas Hate Crime Statute: Is it Really Just a Plea Bargaining Tool in Disguise?

The brutal murder of a black man, James Byrd, in Jasper, Texas by three white men led to Texas’ first hate crimes law three years later. The Texas Legislature adopted the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001. Since the law’s inception, prosecutors have earned less than one conviction per year. In fact, only one Texas Hate Crime case has ever made it to the state jury, leaving many to question whether the law is effective, or whether it is just a plea-bargaining chip for prosecutors to play when they want the accused to agree to a deal.

The Subjective Standard Used to Evaluate Hate Crimes Often Means Cases Lack Sufficient Evidence and Proof

The Texas Hate Crime law was established to tighten and enhance penalties for certain violent crimes that are alleged to be motivated by hate and/or bias. Critics of the law say that there is very little payoff for all the extra effort that goes into prosecuting hate crimes, since most felony crimes are excluded because the sentencing structure already allows for the maximum—thus there is no room for the sentencing enhancement that the law was designed to provide.

Cases prosecuted under the Texas Hate Crime law are evaluated under a very subjective standard that often lacks the required proof and evidence to support the allegations against the accused. Proving that a crime was committed out of hate or bias toward a particular person or group is a very difficult element to establish, so the statute hardly ever sees the inside of a courtroom.

The subjective standard required to establish a hate crime makes the law difficult to prosecute successfully, and many prosecutors don’t even try. They simply use the charge as a threat for an enhanced prison term, leverage to get the accused to succumb to an admission of guilt, and ultimately, acceptance of the plea-bargain.

Even the Texas hate crimes law’s author, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, said the law was established because the legislature “wanted to use it as a deterrent.” The fact that the Texas Hate Crime law goes largely unprosecuted—but makes a very effective plea-bargaining tool and prosecutorial scare tactic—reveals much about the underpinnings of dealing with hate-driven incidents in a court of law.

Having a Good Defense Attorney Can Mean No Unfair Plea Agreements

While prosecuting a hate crime case can be quite difficult due to the subjective nature of the statute, it stands to reason that defending a hate crime is a much more straightforward process. Certain constitutional protections can apply when a person is up against a vague or ambiguous charge—and defense attorneys can often prove that the elements of a hate crime aren’t established by the circumstances and evidence at hand. A reputable criminal defense attorney can often prevent a client from being manipulated by a plea agreement when the charges, evidence, and circumstances don’t seem to fit the accusations.

If you have been charged with a crime and are concerned about being subject to an unjust plea agreement, contact attorney Patrick J. McLain immediately. Utilizing over 25 years of experience in the courtroom, he will fight to see your rights are protected and no scare tactics are used to force you into an unjust plea agreement.

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