Austin, Texas -- After refusing for months to say where he stood, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed a hate crimes bill today that strengthens the penalties for offenses against minorities, gays and others.
The measure, the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, was named for the East Texas black man who was dragged to his death from a pickup truck in 1998 by three white men. Mr. Perry's predecessor, President Bush, had refused to support the measure two years ago, saying all crimes are hate crimes.
Mr. Perry said today, "This law sends a signal to would-be criminals that if you attack someone because of their religion or race or gender, you face stiffer penalties." As Mr. Perry signed the bill, he was surrounded by Mr. Byrd's parents and lawmakers who had pushed for the legislation.
As recently as Thursday, Mr. Perry said he had not decided whether he would sign the bill and was concerned it would "create new classes of citizens." Mr. Byrd's mother, Stella Byrd, said before the signing that she was "very pleased that he changed his mind and thank God for that, too." "I think he finally realized it was a good bill," Mrs. Byrd said.
Two of the men who killed Mr. Byrd are on death row. The third received a life sentence. The act, which received final legislative approval on Thursday, strengthens penalties for crimes motivated by a victim's race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age or national origin.
Texas already has a hate-crimes law that increases penalties if a crime is proven to be "motivated by bias or prejudice," but that law does not list specific categories of people who are protected. Some prosecutors have said it is too vague to enforce.
Two years ago, a bill similar to today's passed the House but died in the Senate after critics complained that it created unnecessary distinctions for gays. Mr. Bush refused to support the measure, and Democrats later criticized him for that in the White House campaign.