Texas’ hate crimes law still largely unused

Nearly five years ago, shortly after joining the Voice, I wrote this in-depth story about how Texas’ hate crimes statute is rarely used by prosecutors. This weekend, the Austin American-Statesman reported that little has changed since then:

Each year for the past decade, local law enforcement agencies have reported about 200 crimes that police said were motivated by the perpetrator’s animosity toward the victim’s race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, among other identifiers , according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which collects statewide data. Yet since 2001, when the Texas Legislature adopted its current hate crime statute, prosecutors have earned convictions on 10 cases — less than one a year statewide, according to figures kept by the state Office of Court Administration. Most have come in plea arrangements: Over the past decade, a single hate crime has been taken to a jury in Texas. …

The number of Texas hate crime prosecutions also pales when compared with some other states. In 2010, California prosecutors filed 230 hate crime cases. New York state prosecutors convict on about a dozen hate crimes a year.

—  John Wright

WATCH: Gay Texas couple that survived Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster speaks out

Blake Miller, left, and Steve Garcia, a gay couple from Austin, were among those who survived the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Italy over the weekend. Garcia, a school teacher in Round Rock, reportedly was celebrating his 50th birthday on the cruise with Miller, his partner of 10 years. Miller is the director of business travel at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin hotel. It was both men’s first cruise and Miller’s first time in Europe. They told the Today show on Sunday they had been to one of the ship’s bars and were planning on going to another when the ship started to list. After they went back to their cabin, they heard a horrible scraping sound. Fortunately the couple had read about the location of the lifeboats.

“I honestly did not have a true understanding of how bad it was until we were on the lifeboat and looked back and saw the first row of windows under water and people screaming, that couldn’t get on a lifeboat,” Miller said. “That’s when we realized how much it was really tilting.”

The Austin American-Statesman reports that once the men were on land, they were stranded on an island for 12 hours.

 When he spoke to one of the ship’s officers on shore, Miller said, the man made a flippant comment.

When the couple were ferried to Porto Santo Stefano early Saturday, Miller said, it was the first time anyone from the cruise accounted for them. It wasn’t until media cameras were filming that a cruise employee offered then blankets. But once they boarded a bus to take shelter in a nearby school gym, away from the media’s bright lights, the blankets were taken away, he said.

After hours without information or answers, they were routed to a hotel in Rome. But without money, passports or clothes, they’re still grappling to put their lives back in order. Though embassy representatives from other countries have deployed to their hotel to help other stranded passengers there, Miller said he’s seen no sign of American help. And with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, they may have to wait until Tuesday, he said.

Watching CNN in their hotel room, Miller said images of the incident continue to upset him. And Costa Concordia’s behavior since the ship ran aground has left him angry.

“I just don’t see how you can leave people with no food, no water, no warmth and not have some kind of plan,” he said. “It’s just not how you run a business. It’s 4,000 lives.”

Watch the couple’s appearance on the Today show below.

—  John Wright

Perry can’t recall sodomy ruling

Perry.Rick

Gov. Rick Perry

In his latest gaffe, Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew a blank today when asked about Lawrence v. Texas — the landmark case overturning the state’s sodomy law — during a campaign stop in Iowa. ABC News reports:

A voter at a meet and greet asked him to defend his criticism of limited government in the case.

“I wish I could tell you I knew every Supreme Court case. I don’t, I’m not even going to try to go through every Supreme Court case, that would be — I’m not a lawyer,” Perry said at the Blue Strawberry Coffee Shop here. “We can sit here and you know play I gotcha questions on what about this Supreme Court case or whatever, but let me tell you, you know and I know that the problem in this country is spending in Washington, D.C., it’s not some Supreme Court case.” ….

Asked by Ken Herman, a columnist with the Austin American Statesman, for clarification on whether he knew what the case concerned, Perry responded, “I’m not taking the bar exam…I don’t know what a lot of legal cases involve.”

When told that the Supreme Court case struck down the Texas sodomy law, Perry said, “My position on traditional marriage is clear and I don’t know need a law. I don’t need a federal law case to explain it to me.”

The Texas governor referenced Lawrence v. Texas in his 2010 book Fed Up!, calling it one of the court cases in which “Texans have a different view of the world than do the nine oligarchs in robes.”

In 2002, after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear Lawrence v. Texas, Perry told the Associated Press that he felt the sodomy law was “appropriate.”

“I think our law is appropriate that we have on the books,” Perry said.

UPDATE: Here’s the video:

—  John Wright

MAP: The fastest-growing gay counties in Texas

The Austin-American Statesman put together the below map for a story that ran this weekend about recently released 2010 Census data on same-sex couples. The story notes that Travis County’s percentage of same-sex couple households is the highest in the state and 13th highest in the country. Which, coincidentally, is precisely where Dallas stands among cities. Of course, these figures include only same-sex couples, and as Tisha so eloquently reminded us in the comments, “just imagine if they could count all the gay sluts in Dallas.”

—  John Wright

Austin to hold gay Pride a week before Dallas in September, but QueerBomb goes off Friday

Austin’s official gay Pride celebration has been moved from June to September this year, but an alternative “take back Pride” event called QueerBomb, which began last year, is set for this Friday in the capital. The Austin American-Statesman reports:

For a celebration of liberation and love, the changes have provoked some animosity in the local gay and lesbian community, though Queerbomb, which held its first alternative celebration the night before Pride last year because it felt that Pride had become too mainstream, says the bad feelings were short-lived.

June historically is the month for Pride parades across the country to pay homage to the Stonewall Riots — violent New York protests prompted by a police raid at a popular gay bar on June 27, 1969, that mark the beginning of America’s gay liberation movement. Queerbomb will hold Austin’s sole June rally at 7p.m. Friday, Beth Schindler, a spokeswoman for the group said.

“People have talked about the battle between Queerbomb and Austin Pride, and that’s not something I want to keep alive because it’s not true anymore,” Schindler added. “The foundation has been very open to working with us, and I’m really optimistic about what they’re doing in September, and I think we’re going to try to support them in whatever way possible.”

Organizers say Austin’s official Pride celebration was moved to September in part because they want to hold the parade during the day instead of at night to avoid disrupting businesses along the route. (Presumably it’s too hot to hold the event during the day in June.) They also say moving Austin’s Pride to September will make it a destination event because it won’t compete with celebrations in other cities — except, of course, Dallas. Austin Pride is scheduled for Sept. 10, the weekend before Dallas Pride on Sept. 18. But hey, maybe some folks from out of state can just make a month of it.

—  John Wright

Police: Austin man killed daughter’s girlfriend, girlfriend’s mother over lesbian relationship

Norma Hurtado

Horribly tragic news tonight out of Austin, where authorities say a man killed his daughter’s girlfriend and the girlfriend’s mother because he was upset that his daughter was in a lesbian relationship. The Austin American-Statesman reports:

Jose Alfonso Aviles, 45, has been charged with capital murder and was arrested early this morning in Bexar County by the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, said Lt. Gena Curtis. Aviles lives in Austin, but was found in San Antonio, police said.

Aviles’ daughter had been dating 24-year-old Norma Hurtado for several months, which was the source of feuding between the Aviles and Hurtado families, Curtis said.

The daughter told police that she was “in a lesbian relationship which her father did not approve of.”

Aviles and another Hispanic man, who has not been identified, went to the Hurtado’s home at the 7100 block of Dixie Drive late Monday and knocked on the door, Curtis said. Moments later, Aviles’ daughter, who was in the home, heard gun shots and found that Hurtado and Hurtado’s mother, 57-year-old Maria Hurtado, had been shot, police said.

Both women died at the scene, police said.

KVUE reports that Aviles’ daughter was in the back of the home when the shootings occurred. She heard the shots, found the bodies and called 911. Police are still trying to locate the second man involved in the killings. Watch the report above.

The San Antonio Express-News has more on Aviles’ arrest:

Officials had been searching for several hours for a Nissan Altima that Aviles was believed to have been driving and found it in a car port in the Bexar County community of St. Hedwig early Tuesday, Hogeland said.

About 30 San Antonio police officers and U.S. Marshals, backed by canines and SAPD’s helicopter Blue Eagle, surrounded Aviles around 3:30 a.m., officials said, and he surrendered.

Police say it will be up to the District Attorney’s Office whether to prosecute the case as a hate crime. Although Travis County has a lesbian district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, we’d say it’s unlikely that will happen. Texas’ hate crimes statute includes “sexual preference.” However, under the statute, there is no penalty enhancement available to prosecutors if the crime is already a capital felony. In other words, the DA’s office would have nothing to gain from prosecuting the case as a hate crime, but it could increase their burden of proof.

Stay tuned to Instant Tea for updates.

—  John Wright

Right-wing lawmaker says Legislature doesn’t have time to remove sodomy ban from books

Wayne Christian

The Austin American-Statesman has a story today about legislation aimed at removing Texas’ unconstitutional sodomy ban from the books. (It makes you wonder, why doesn’t The Dallas Morning News report on stuff like this?)

Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code, which outlawed gay sex, was struck down as unconstitutional eight years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the statute remains on the books, and those who want to remove it say its continued presence “creates a climate favorable to bullying, gay-bashing and hate crimes,” according to the Statesman.

Take, for example, the incident a few years back at Chico’s Tacos in El Paso, in which two gay men were threatened with sodomy charges for kissing in public. No, we’re not kidding.

Democratic State Reps. Jessica Farrar and Garnet Coleman have introduced identical bills that would remove 21.06 from the books, but the bills are almost guaranteed to go nowhere in the Republican-monopolized Legislature.

Why? Well, the real reason is that many conservative lawmakers believe sodomy should still be a crime. The Statesman fails to point out that the state GOP platform calls for the recriminalization of sodomy. But naturally these right-wing lawmakers are too chicken shit to come out and say this, so they’ve come up with another excuse: We simply don’t have enough time!

From the Statesman:

As of January, Republicans hold 101 of the 150 seats in the Texas House , a supermajority that allows them to easily control legislation. Last session, the House was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

The GOP domination is also reflected in the Criminal Jurisprudence committee, which would be the first to vote on Farrar’s or Coleman’s bill . A Democrat chairs the committee, but Republicans — including Wayne Christian, the most recent president of the Texas Conservative Coalition — outnumber them two-to-one.

Christian said he had not looked at the bills in detail, but that the time it would take them to go through committee probably would not be worth the outcome — especially in a session where lawmakers are wrestling with major issues like redistricting and filling a multi-billion-dollar budget hole.

So there you have it, folks. Christian doesn’t believe gays should be allowed to fill each other’s holes, so he’s claiming the Legislature is too busy filling the budget hole. Or, to phrase it another way, Christian is preoccupied with filling his own hole.

Funny how the Texas Legislature always seems to find time to TAKE AWAY people’s civil rights.

—  John Wright

UPDATE: Ex-Texas prison official acquitted of charges he sexually abused young male inmates

John Paul Hernandez

John Paul Hernandez, the former Texas youth prison official whose trial we told you about last week, was acquitted of all charges late Monday. The Austin American-Statesman reports:

John Paul Hernandez was found not guilty on 14 counts alleging he molested five boys in 2004 and 2005 after a jury deliberated for six hours, following two weeks of testimony. Prosecutors declined to comment.

A second defendant accused of molesting boys at the West Texas State School in Pyote, former assistant superintendent Ray Brookins, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison last year.

“Six years I’ve been waiting to hear those words,” Hernandez was quoted by The Associated Press in a story filed early this morning. “I’ve already served a six-year punishment and finally a weight has been lifted.”

—  John Wright

Anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum tries to bully legislators into ousting Speaker Joe Straus

Speaker Joe Straus

The anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum is trying to bully state legislators into opposing Joe Straus’ bid for re-election as speaker of the House. As we’ve said before, Straus, R-San Antonio, is socially moderate and could be our last line of defense against possible anti-gay attacks in the upcoming session. The other candidates for speaker are Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who authored the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, who voted to ban gay foster parents.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that Pat Carlson, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, is circulating a form letter for activists to send their legislators:

The letter says the Eagle Forum, which monitors issues such as abortion and gay rights, will base half of its legislative scorecard on who lawmakers support for speaker when the House convenes next week.

The Eagle Forum and many other groups on the right and left use scorecards to track key votes during a legislative session and then rate lawmakers. A poor rating from the Eagle Forum, for instance, could cause trouble for a lawmaker seeking re-election in a Republican primary.

“Texans have spoken at the ballot box by returning a strong conservative Republican majority to the Texas House,” the letter says. “They expect this conservative majority to vote for a conservative speaker. Unfortunately, Speaker Straus is not a conservative. Anyone who says otherwise, was not paying attention during the last legislative session or has not looked at Speaker Straus’ political associations and background or both.”

The story goes on to note that a vast majority of House members have pledged support for Straus, who is considered a favorite to remain speaker.

—  John Wright

Beloved, gay UT professor retires after 39 years

Guy Howard Miller

Guy Howard Miller taught history and religious studies since 1971

JOSHUNDA SANDERS  |  Austin American-Statesman
(via the Associated Press)

AUSTIN — Anyone looking for “an exhibit of Jesus pop culture gloriousness” has to look no further than Guy Howard Miller’s office, says Lindsey Carmichael, one of his estimated 10,000 former students.

The University of Texas professor who taught history and religious studies there since 1971 typically sipped a Diet Dr Pepper in his Garrison Hall digs after class amid an abundance of Jesus-themed refrigerator magnets, mouse pads and framed pictures.

“My ex-wife said it was Jesus-infested,” Miller said matter-of-factly.

Now that Miller, 69, has retired — his last class was Dec. 3 — he will have to find a place for his turn-of-the-century Jesus pictures and growing collection of Ben-Hur artifacts. For his former students, the bigger problem will be finding someone as colorful and as engaged in his profession.

Carmichael, 25, is among those who refer to themselves as “Millerites,” and she said she considers Miller more of a friend than a former professor.

Like others who have had a class with him, Carmichael says she still remembers what he said to her class during their first meeting: “Now kids, Dr. Miller is gay. Now, Dr. Miller also loves Jesus. And if you happen to have a problem with that, there’s the door.”’

“Religion for him is not a cultural assumption; it’s fluid and constantly evolving,” she said. “I’m going to be grateful to him for the rest of my life. Now that he’s retired, the university will never be quite as bright a place.”

Miller’s attentiveness is legendary. At the beginning of each semester, he would tell his students that he really wanted to meet them and would hold frequent office hours to get to know them, he said.

“I will have seen about 60 to 70 percent of the class by the end of the term,” Miller said.

He also held a number of administrative roles at the school, and his vision helped shape the Department of Religious Studies, which in 2011 will enroll its first graduate students. He created one of his most innovative classes, “Jesus in American Culture” — a multimedia course he started with a grant from UT’s Tech Services in 2005, complete with full-length video, audio recordings and transcripts available online.

He wrote “The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education, 1707-1837 ” and has contributed to several other books.

Miller is small in stature, but his voice and presence loom large. He has a mischievous twinkle in his eye even when he’s talking about potentially dry topics like the differences between Protestants and Catholics. He favors tweed jackets with button-down shirts in blue or canary yellow.

Miller was raised Southern Baptist in Graham with five sisters.

“I was the first to go to college,” he said. “I thought I’d be a laborer or a butcher like my father was.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1964 and a master’s in history in 1966 from what is now the University of North Texas. After earning a doctorate in American intellectual history from the University of Michigan in 1970, he taught for a year at Hope College in Michigan before moving to UT.

The Rev. Marcus McFaul, who leads Highland Park Baptist Church, took three courses with Miller from 1980 to 1984.

“The greatest gift I got as a student of Dr. Miller’s is the appreciation of critical thought, and his animated description of religious thought made history come alive. Howard Miller is what put me on to the love of American religious thought. It allowed me to get the larger picture and still retain an affinity to a particular tradition, ” McFaul said.

Overhearing this, Miller said, “Marcus has done what I wish I could have done — which is remain a Baptist.”

Miller said the Southern Baptist church that he grew up in was “a very different denomination than the very conservative denomination that emerged after the conservatives purged liberals and moderates in the ’80s and ’90s.” He left the church in the 1960s because he disagreed with some aspects of Baptist theology and “more important, with its opposition to the civil rights movement.”

In Austin, he joined an Episcopal church for a few years but stopped attending because he grew tired of his sexual orientation being a problem, he said. He said he no longer attends a church, but if he returned to one, it would be a moderate Baptist church like McFaul’s.

Miller has received most of the university-wide and College of Liberal Arts teaching awards, including the largest undergraduate teaching award at the school, the $15,000 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship.

“If I do have a calling, it’s to teach the gospel of liberal arts, not the Gospel of Jesus,” Miller said.

—  John Wright