Living on a meager disability pension and without means of transportation, forty-nine-year-old African American James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas thought he had caught a break when three white men offered him a ride home on June 6, 1998. The following morning, police found Byrd's torso in the middle of the road, his head and arm in a ditch a mile away, and a three-mile trail of blood staining the road. That racial animus was the motivation for Byrd's torture, dragging, and death was hardly in dispute. Two of the three perpetrators were members of white supremacist organizations and bore tattoos of swastikas and black men in nooses, and one perpetrator allegedly made a number of racial slurs both before and during the murder.
As gruesome as this crime was, prosecutors were unable to seek enhanced sentences for the perpetrators due to inadequacies in existing state and federal hate crime law. Federal hate crime law applied only if victims were engaging in "federally protected activities" when attacked, and Texas laws enhancing sentences for hate crimes were not useful in this case. Later that year, Wyoming lawyers were precluded from seeking an enhanced sentence in the case of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was tortured and murdered because of his homosexuality, because Wyoming was one of the few states at the time with no hate crime laws.
Carter T. Coker,
Hope-Fulfilling or Effectively Chilling? Reconciling the Hate Crimes Prevention Act With the First Amendment,
64 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol64/iss1/5