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Demos seek hate-crime debate

Screening of film is attempt to spark talks on House floor

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Utah Democrats are hoping a Sundance film about the racially motivated killing of a black man in Jasper, Texas, will help spark a long-awaited debate on hate-crimes legislation on the House floor.

Screenings of the film "Two Towns of Jasper" took place this week for advocates and lawmakers. The 90-minute movie documents the intense racial divide in Jasper following the brutal murder of James Byrd Jr. by three white men. An all-black film crew spent about 100 days with the town's black residents and an all-white crew spent the same time with white residents.

The filmmakers documented some of the deep-seated divides between white and black residents.

"I think it brings out an underlying problem that people are afraid to talk about," Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said after attending Wednesday's screening at the capitol. "You have two separate communities basically speaking their mind, and you don't have that too often."

Utah Democrats who organized the screening said they were hoping people leave the film at least willing to discuss the issue this year.

"I think it's important, regardless of where you are on the hate-crime legislation, you need to have this dialogue," Rep. David Litvack said.

Litvack, D-Salt Lake, joined Sen. Pete Suazo last year to push for a more effective hate-crimes statute in Utah. But both Litvack's and Suazo's bills stalled in the House with no floor debate.

Suazo's widow, Sen. Alicia Suazo, D-Salt Lake, filled her husband's seat after his death in an August ATV accident and has vowed to continue the fight for hate-crime legislation. She said she would unveil her 2002 hate-crime bill next week.

None of the estimated 10 Republicans who attended Wednesday's screening included House or Senate leadership. And while Republicans in attendance did praise filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams for their work, they said the movie did not change their stance against hate-crimes legislation.

"I personally think it creates a bigger divide," Ray said.

"I voted against hate crimes last year and will probably do the same this year," Rep. Morgan Philpot, R-Sandy, said. "What they (the filmmakers) were presenting in the film I appreciate very much . . . (but) I think they're two totally separate things."

Courts have found Utah's current hate-crime law too vague, and Suazo's bill last year would have increased the penalty for a crime if it was committed because of bias or prejudice against a group of people.

Backers of new hate-crimes legislation have long accused conservative House Republicans of refusing to even debate the issue. But Litvack and others are hoping a coordinated grass-roots campaign will force a more open discussion this year.

Indications are that movement is growing, although a recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed 57 percent of Utahns said Utah does not need a hate-crimes law.

More than 400 people attended a Monday screening of the film at Calvary Baptist Church, 1090 S. State. "I sure am happy to see all these faces here," Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, told the capacity crowd who crammed into the church's gymnasium. "I hope we can get the same support when we're moving forward to get this legislation passed."

"I think last year that's the one area we didn't put enough focus in," Litvack said. "When it came to push and shove last year, not having that community outcry was a detriment."

E-MAIL: djensen@desnews.com