AUSTIN, Texas — After refusing for months to say where he stood, Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed a Texas hate crime bill Friday that strengthens the penalties for offenses against minorities, gays and others.
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, including two avowed white supremacists.
Perry's predecessor, George W. Bush, had refused to support the measure two years ago, saying all crimes are hate crimes. He was criticized for his action during the White House campaign last year.
"With my signature, Texas now has stronger penalties against crimes motivated by hate," said Perry, who had been noncommittal about the measure until Friday's signing.
"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," the governor said.
As Perry signed the bill, he was surrounded by Byrd's parents, Stella Byrd and James Byrd Sr., and lawmakers who had pushed for the legislation.
"You've endured unimaginable pain that no Texan should have to endure. I hope you can find some peace in knowing that his death was not in vain," Perry told Byrd's parents.
Byrd's mother, with tears in her eyes, said the law gives her "something good to remember from his death. This is the best Mother's Day gift that I've ever received."
Since Byrd's death, the parents said that each month they have had to clean his grave of racist notes and placards.
They said hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan have posed for photos at the cemetery and "left a placard there saying, 'We've been here,' " the mother said.
"They . . . did everything to his grave. We just need something to wake them up. By passing this bill, it did," she said.
Two of the men who killed Byrd are on death row. The third received a life sentence.
The hate crime act, which received final legislative approval Thursday, ended years of debate.
The bill strengthens penalties for crimes motivated by a victim's race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual orientation, age or national origin.
Texas already has a hate crime law that increases penalties if a crime is proved to be "motivated by bias or prejudice."
But the measure does not list specific categories of people who are protected. Some prosecutors have said it is too vague to enforce.
Two years ago, a similar bill passed the House but was turned down by the Senate when critics complained it created unnecessary distinctions for homosexuals. As recently as Thursday, Perry said he had not decided whether he would sign the bill and was concerned it would "create new classes of citizens."
"As governor of a very large, diverse state, in all matters it is desirable to seek common ground, common ground for the common good," Perry said Friday.
Louvon Harris, one of Byrd's sisters, praised the governor for his decision.
"We're so overjoyed and grateful at this point. I have no words to describe how we feel at this point," Harris told American Urban Radio Networks.
"It was a long road."