Friday, December 17, 2010

Sentencing Delayed for Attacker of Trans Man

Terrance Calhoun, who brutally attacked and robbed a gay transgender student at Houston Community College this summer faced Harris County District Court Judge Belinda Hill at his sentencing hearing today.

The attack took place on June 22 near downtown Houston. Calhoun followed Lance Reyna into the restroom, shouted “Hey queer!”, and demanded Reyna’s possessions while thrusting a knife against Reyna’s throat. After robbing Reyna, Calhoun struck him in the face and shoved him to the floor.

I accompanied Reyna to the Houston Police Station a couple of weeks after the attack, where he identified Calhoun in a line-up. This was the first time he had seen his attacker since the robbery. Lance was pale and could barely speak above a whisper as he bravely identified the man who had left him bruised and bleeding on a restroom floor.

Calhoun's face in the lineup was brazen, his body held in tension between defiance and threat. A far cry from his demeanor in court today where he shuffled his feet, cried and spoke so softly that the judge repeatedly asked him to speak up.

Reyna testified in court today that he fears another attack and believes that Calhoun should serve at least a portion of the 5 years to life in prison that Texas law allows.

Calhoun plead guilty to aggravated robbery, but denied shouting the anti-gay epithet during the attack. His defense attorney attempted to convince the judge that the Christian values of his large, supportive family would prevent him from re-offending if the judge gave him probation instead of jail time. District Attorney Jonathan Stephenson succinctly retorted that if Calhoun's Christian values and supportive family didn't help him set his life straight after his previous drug conviction (a conviction for which he was serving probation at the time of the attack on Reyna) the court had no reason to believe they would do so now.

Judge Hill ordered Calhoun, who has been out on bail, to return to county custody for 120 days while she considers his sentence. “I’m pleased to know that my attacker is now behind bars, where he cannot harm anyone else,” said Reyna. “I thank the judge for her sensitive consideration of this issue, and look forward to her final ruling.”

The attack against Reyna was reported to the department of public safety as a hate crime, so it will be included in the Hate Crimes Statistic Report by the FBI, but the Harris County DA has declined to prosecute it as a hate crime under Texas law.

Understand that the Harris County DA is not claiming that it was not a hate crime, they are simply choosing not to request that the judge in the case add a finding that Calhoun acted out of an anti-gay bias to the charges against him.

Why not? Because the Texas hate crime law (found in Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42.014) only allows prosecutors to add to the maximum allowed for the crime in question. Because the guidelines for aggravated robbery allow for a sentence of 5 years to life in prison attaching the hate crime charge would not increase the potential punishment the judge could prescribe (a person can not serve more time than life). There is no incentive for the prosecutor to pursue a hate crime charge when doing so would create more work, and would not affect the final sentence of the defendant.

“The Texas Hate Crimes statute is disappointingly insufficient as a tool against attacks like this”, said Cristan Williams, executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America, "I am hopeful that state lawmakers will consider revising the law to make it more useful”.

According to Randal Terrel, former Policy Director for Equality Texas, over 1,800 potential hate crimes have been reported to the Department of Public Safety since the Texas hate crimes statute went into effect in 2001. Only 12 have been prosecuted as hate crimes.

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tarrant County) filed legislation last month (HB 172) that would require a study to look for ways to improve the law. (Legislative Queery's synopsis of the bill HERE) He filed a similar bill last session, which was heard in committee and sent to the full House for a vote, but it was not voted on before the end of session.

One solution to the problem with the hate crime law would be to edit the statute to allow an increase in the minimum allowable sentence in cases where the maximum is life. Under the current statute Judge Hill could sentence Calhoun to as little as 5 years in prison. He would then be eligible for parole in about two and a half years. If the law were amended so that including the hate crimes charge increased the minimum sentence, say to 10 years, prosecutors would have a reason to use it since it would likely result in longer sentences.

Another idea for improving the law would be amend it to include gender identity and expression. Currently the hate crimes statute list several attributes, and allows for a perpetrators bias against people with those attributes to trigger the hate crimes enhancement. Under the current law crimes committed because of the perpetrator's bias against transgender people cannot be prosecuted as hate crimes. ( This omission was not an issue in this case because Reyna is both gay and transgender, and because the epithet used "queer" demonstrates Calhoun's bias against gay people.) Last legislative session Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a bill (HB 2966) that would have done that. It did not receive a hearing.

Judge Hill indicated that her final ruling will likely be "deferred adjudication", a legal process by which she can wait to sentence him until he completes requirements of the court. Hill suggested that she might order Calhoun to attend one year of substance abuse treatment at a “lock-down” facility followed by 10 years of probation. If Calhoun did not follow the rules of the treatment facility or violated his probation he would then find himself back in front of Judge Hill, who could sentence him to up to in life in prison.

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