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What qualifies as a hate crime in Texas? Breaking down state laws

Prosecutors must prove intent and motivation beyond a reasonable doubt for a successful hate crime conviction. It doesn't happen often.

HOUSTON — Video of a violent attack at an Asian-owned Houston beauty store has many of you wondering whether or not that qualifies as a hate crime.

The incident in Houston is just one of several across the country the last few weeks. Some were labeled hate crimes, others not. But why? 

Let's take a closer look at Texas hate crime laws and how they work. 

In Texas, hate crime legislation is known as the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. It's been on the books since 2001. 

It's named after James Byrd Jr., a black man violently killed by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas in 1998. 

Then state Senator and now Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis played a huge role in making it law. 

"Texas hate crimes statute would not have seen the light of day had it not been for the horrific killing of James Byrd Jr," said Ellis. "it's one of those moments in history that was a touchstone."

It allows prosecutors to add "sentencing enhancements" for alleged hate crimes. That's a fancy way of saying more time in prison. 

Authorities have to prove a suspect "acted out of bias toward the victim's perceived race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference. 

But in practice that's not easy to do. 

ProPublica analysis from 2010 to 2015 found 981 cases of potential hate crimes. Only five ended up in specific hate crime convictions. That's just .5%.

Experts say it's because proving intent is not easy. Most criminal cases just require proving a suspect committed the alleged act. Hate crime cases require proving a person's motivation. 

"The statute has not been used as much as I'd like it to be," said Ellis. "Going to issue of intent and proving it beyond a reasonable doubt is always a challenge."

It's important to note that Texas current hate crime laws offer no protections for transgender people, however the federal law also named after James Byrd Jr. does.