The tiny number of successful prosecutions leave lawmakers questioning state’s commitment to punishing hate
Ryan Katz, ProPublica
Wednesday, Apr 12, 2017
Lance Reyna was assaulted in a school bathroom in 2010. Reyna — who is transgender and gay — was a student at Houston Community College when an attacker held a knife to his throat, called him a ‘queer’ in a falsetto voice, then kicked and beat him and left him on the bathroom floor.
In Austin the following year, it didn’t take long for Akbar Amin-Akbari to sense that the man who climbed into his cab shortly after midnight was drunk and angry. But Amin-Akbari drove on, and minutes later, with the cab going 65 mph on I-35, the man suddenly grabbed him by the hair, yanking out a fistful and violently pulling his head toward the backseat. “I’m a white boy. I’m going to kill you sand nigger,” the passenger yelled.
More recently, John Gaspari was walking home from a bar in Houston at around 3 a.m. on Valentine’s Day 2015. He was three blocks from home when a car suddenly swerved onto the sidewalk, trying to run him over. Three men jumped out of the car and shouted, “Get the fag!” They tackled, punched and kicked Gaspari. Then one of them pumped two bullets into him and left him unconscious on the side of the road.
Each of the incidents were recorded by Texas police as potential hate crimes. Since 2001, Texas has had the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act on the books, named after a black man who’d been killed by white supremacists in 1998. The law allows prosecutors to attach what’s known as a sentencing enhancement to alleged hate crime cases, adding time behind bars if authorities prove the perpetrator intentionally acted out of bias toward the victim’s perceived race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference.
The bill’s sponsor, then-state Sen. Rodney Ellis, declared at the time that Texas had “sent a message that our state is not a safe haven for hate.”
But neither Reyna’s assault, nor Amin-Akbari’s beating nor Gaspari’s shooting were successfully prosecuted as hate crimes. Indeed, a ProPublica analysis shows that such cases in Texas almost never are.
From 2010 through 2015, there were 981 cases reported to police in Texas as potential hate crimes. ProPublica examined the records kept by the Texas Judicial Branch and confirmed just five hate crime convictions. In the course of reviewing dozens of other individual case files for potential convictions, we found another three. How many additional cases were missed by the state agency is unclear.
To be sure, the 981 cases varied widely, as did the reasons for their outcomes comprise a wide variety of reports. Interviews with law enforcement make clear that some number of the reports wind up dismissed because of too little evidence — or evidence that suggests that the alleged crimes didn’t happen at all. Another considerable number are cases that fail to produce an arrest and thus go unsolved. But while ProPublica could not comprehensively break down the universe of 981 cases — the two separate state agencies that track incident reports and convictions do not track what happens in between — there is widespread agreement among prosecutors, legislators and others in Texas about why there have been so few successful convictions under the hate crime statute:
- It is extremely hard for prosecutors to prove the intent of the accused.
- Individual prosecutors either lack the will to pursue the enhancement or make the calculation that it’s more advantageous to seek significant sentences but without the hate crime allegation.
- Police officials often do not have the training to help build successful hate crime cases.
- In some very violent cases that carry the most severe sentences — murder or rape, for instance — prosecutors opt to drop the hate element because there is no additional punishment available.
In Reyna’s case, his attacker was convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, but the hate crime element was dropped during prosecution.
In Austin, prosecutors asked a grand jury to indict Amin-Akbari’s assailant on hate crime charges, but it declined. The attacker’s trial on aggravated assault charges ended with a hung jury.