john william king james byrd jr SPLIT
A look back at the murder of James Byrd Jr.
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John William King sought to terrorize blacks in east Texas by murdering James Byrd Jr., but his vicious crime instead (eventually) provided federal law enforcement with additional tools to punish perpetrators of hate crimes.

King was convicted in 1999 in the dragging death of Byrd, as were two of his cohorts, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry. Brewer was executed in 2011, and Berry, who cooperated with police, is serving a life sentence.

King, who was executed Wednesday evening, long maintained his innocence, saying Berry was solely responsible, but his appeals claiming ineffective assistance of counsel were repeatedly denied. A federal appeals court upheld his conviction last year, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear his case in October.

Following King’s execution by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, here’s a look at the hate crime legislation the 1998 murder helped materialize.

The act

The federal act is often associated with the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay student beaten to death in Wyoming, but the full name of the law is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1968 provided for federal prosecution of anyone who hurt or interfered with someone because of her or his race, religion or nationality, the law pigeonholed such crimes.

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The victims, the law said, applied only to those engaged in federally protected activities, such as going to school, serving on a jury or voting. In 1995, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act upped the penalty for hate crimes.

The hate crime law spurred by the Byrd and Shepard slayings removed the provision that the victim had to be engaged in a federally protected activity. It also required the FBI to add gender- and gender identity-based violence to the list of hate crimes the agency was already tracking.

How does it define hate crime?

A hate crime is defined as hurting someone – or if the perpetrator employs fire or a weapon, attempting to hurt someone – based on their “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin,” according to the Justice Department.

It adds that 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.”

When did it pass?

It took five congressional sessions to get it through. First introduced in April 2001 and championed by then-Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, the bills did not make it far in the legislative process. Most died in House or Senate committees.

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A version passed the House in 2007, but didn’t make it out of Senate committee after President George W. Bush threatened to veto a bill because his advisers deemed hate crime legislation “unnecessary and constitutionally questionable.”

Over the objections of several lawmakers who called it Orwellian, the act passed both the House and Senate in 2009 as part of a defense bill. President Barack Obama, who had promised to make it a priority of his presidency, signed it into law on October 28, 2009.

Was there a reason for the holdup?

Some lawmakers and experts felt the law was redundant and that the laws in place at the time addressed the crimes and punishments outlined in the act.

Others felt it was an attempt at thought control or that it might violate free speech, particularly when it came to those speaking out against the LGBTQ community on religious grounds. There were also legal experts concerned that the act amounted to double jeopardy.

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Supporters argued that the bill’s wording protected free speech and that the repercussions of being the victim of a hate crime were more profound – and took longer from which to recover, especially in the LGBTQ community.

Then-Attorney General Eric Holder testified the act was necessary to combat a spike in hate crimes, most notably in Latino communities.

He cited 77,000 hate crime incidents reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, which amounted to “nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade.”

Who was James Byrd Jr.?