Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Short-Lived Justice

Joshua Collier is a nonprofit fundraiser in Dallas for an organization that works with homeless teenagers, many who identify as LGBT. An active member of the Dallas LGBT community, Collier is a member of the DFW Gay Professionals, marketing director for OUT TAKES Dallas and secretary for the Dallas Chapter of PFLAG, where he serves with his mother Kathy, who is co-president, and his father Gary, who is treasurer.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the sense of justice I felt when the Dallas Police Department took the courageous step to file hate crimes charges against the two men who brutally beat a gay man in what is now being called Dallas’ worst anti-gay attack in recent memory. Unfortunately, that sense of justice has been short lived.

Prosecutors have chosen not to pursue the hate crimes charges in this case. I have met this decision with a feeling of mixed emotions. On one side of the argument, I feel extremely let down by those handling this case. Justice is not being served and the LGBT community is once again being marginalized by the legal system. While this angers me, my analytical brain can understand the choice made by the prosecution.

Under Texas’ statute, a hate crimes finding by a jury means that the degree of a crime is increased by one level, but only if it’s a second- or third-degree felony. If the crime is already a first-degree felony, as it is in this case, the degree and punishment cannot be increased. This means the prosecution gains nothing except for an additional burden of proof at trial. If this additional burden of proof is not met, then the perpetrators could be released without any repercussions for their barbarian actions.

The question then becomes whether the risk of the attackers’ freedom is worth nothing more than a potential psychological victory for the LGBT community, since the punishment cannot be increased. We find ourselves in a hard-to-win situation. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, thousands of crimes have been classified as hate crimes by law enforcement agencies since the institution of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001. But once these crimes went to trial, only nine have been prosecuted as a hate crime and only one resulted in a successful conviction, according to Equality Texas.

If thousands of hate crimes have been reported with so few actually being tried as hate crimes, it leads me to ask, “Is the hate crimes law working?” The obvious answer is no. If the law was put in place to curb bias-motivated crimes, then it should allow for a more severe punishment regardless of the charge’s degree.

The cynic in me questions further what the real intentions of law makers were when the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act was instituted with its flawed process. Was this giant loop hole not seen or was it precisely placed to maintain the status quo while quieting the public calling for change in the wake of a highly publicized hate crime 10 years ago? Have we all been duped?

I urge every Texan, especially every Dallasite, who believes in the protections of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act to call or write your legislator regarding this seemingly inefficient law. We must ban together today with the same fervor as we did 10 years ago after the murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard because we still have not reached full inclusion and protection under the law.

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