Lawrence Russell Brewer, the former leader of a white supremacist prison group, today became the second defendant to be convicted in the slaying of James Byrd Jr., a black man chained behind a pickup truck and dragged to his death along a backwoods road in Jasper, Tex.
"I can't begin to describe how good we feel right now," said Mary Verrette, one of Byrd's six sisters, standing with family members outside the courthouse after the verdict. "The second weight has been lifted from our shoulders."
Brewer, 32, who could be sentenced to lethal injection, is one of three men charged in one of the most gruesome racial crimes of the post-civil rights era. In the early morning darkness of June 7, 1998, Byrd, 49, was driven into an East Texas forest, beaten, then chained at the ankles and dragged for three miles, until his head was torn off by the jagged edge of a roadside concrete culvert.
The jury that convicted Brewer of capital murder this afternoon immediately began hearing testimony in the penalty phase, which is expected to conclude Wednesday. The panel will then decide whether Brewer should join the instigator of the attack, John William King, 24, on Texas's death row. King, a self-described white supremacist, was found guilty in February and became the first white man in Texas since Reconstruction to be sentenced to die for the murder of a black victim.
The third defendant, Shawn Allen Berry, 24, is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 24.
"Relieved--that's the word, relieved," Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray said after waiting four hours for today's verdict. "Twenty-two years I've been doing this, and it never gets easy," he added. "Everybody got nervous waiting."
Brewer's lawyers, who declined to discuss the case during the trial, did not attend a news conference after today's verdict.
The jury, which includes no black members, reached its verdict after five days of testimony. If the panel of five women and seven men, including a Latino man, opts against the death penalty, Brewer will be sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 40 years.
"There was never a worry that an all-white jury wouldn't do the correct thing," said Gray, who had prosecuted King before a jury that included one black member. "It just doesn't matter who the victim is. A murder is a murder."
Byrd, who was unemployed and living alone in a subsidized apartment, was walking home from a family gathering after midnight when he was picked up and driven to woods outside Jasper, a racially mixed city of 8,000, about 125 miles north of Houston. After being beaten, chained and dragged along a winding ribbon of pavement, his body was dumped at the gate of a small, historically black cemetery.
Brewer and King, both of whom had arrest records for burglary, were prison cellmates in the early 1990s and belonged to a racist group, according to Gray, who said Brewer was the group's leader, with the title "exalted cyclops." Prosecutors told jurors in both trials that King instigated Byrd's murder to draw attention to a white supremacist group that he planned to form in Jasper.
Brewer, who took the witness stand on the fifth day of testimony in the case last Friday, admitted that he was present when Byrd was chained and dragged, but said he did not take part in the killing. Brewer said he thought Byrd was already dead when the dragging began because, he testified, Berry had slashed Byrd's throat.
But Gray offered an array of evidence that he said proved that all three men took part in the killing. Medical witnesses said there was no evidence of Byrd's throat having been cut, and traces of Byrd's blood were found on each man's shoes.
As they did in King's trial, prosecutors in Brewer's case presented evidence that Byrd was alive and conscious when the dragging began. The evidence was crucial because it was the underlying felony of kidnapping that made Byrd's murder a death penalty offense, and for Byrd to have been kidnapped under Texas's legal definition, he had to have been alive during the dragging.
"I don't know if he was conscious when he hit the culvert," pathologist Thomas Brown testified. "I pray that he wasn't."
Because of the worldwide publicity generated by the crime and by King's trial in Jasper, the judge in Brewer's case granted a change of venue to the defense, moving Brewer's trial 160 miles west to the small city of Bryan, near Texas A&M University.
"I don't like the death penalty, but that's what he deserves," Gray said of Brewer. "The just punishment for his case and these facts and circumstances is death."
CAPTION: James Byrd Sr. and daughter Mylinda Washington leave courthouse in Bryan, Tex., after Lawrence Russell Brewer's conviction in death of James Byrd Jr.