The last of three white men to stand trial for chaining James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him to pieces was found guilty of murder but spared execution yesterday.
Shawn Allen Berry, who insisted he was just a frightened bystander, was sentenced to life in prison for one of the nation's grisliest racial crimes since the civil rights era. His racist roommates were both sentenced to death.
The all-white jury took 10 hours over two days to convict him, but only two hours to agree on a sentence. Berry, 24, must serve at least 40 years in prison before he has a chance of parole.
Jurors rejected Berry's pleas that he believed his own life was in danger by his companions.
"There was a day and time in this country when juries and cops ignored racial cases. Facts are facts, though, and they stayed with the facts," Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray said.
Prosecutors called no witnesses in the punishment phase but introduced evidence regarding Berry's prior convictions for burglary and drunken driving.
For the defense, nine people testified that Berry--who unlike his fellow defendants did not have a history of racist activities--did not meet the death-penalty test of being a future threat to society. Among those witnesses were several of Berry's friends and a psychiatrist who testified against the two other defendants in their trials.
Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was beaten, hooked to Berry's truck with a 24-foot logging chain, and dragged by his ankles over three miles of a country road last year.
Berry's roommates, avowed white supremacists John William King, 25, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 32, were sentenced to die in separate trials earlier this year.
Prosecutors said Berry invited Byrd to join the three for a ride, helped chain him to the truck, and then drove during the dragging.
Berry, however, testified that he tried to stop the attack until King warned him that a "nigger lover" could meet the same fate that awaited Byrd. Berry testified that he was so scared he wet his pants and did nothing further to intervene. Berry also insisted it was King who drove the truck.
Testifying a second time in the punishment phase, Berry reasserted his innocence.
"Look across that jury and look at the Byrd family sitting right there and explain why you don't have any remorse in this crime?" thundered Brit Featherston, a federal prosecutor helping local authorities.
"I am very sorry from what happened to Mr. Byrd and I've said that from day one. I wanted to speak to the Byrd family personally but I couldn't," Berry said.
Berry's attorney, Joseph C. "Lum" Hawthorn, pleaded with jurors to spare Berry. But in his closing argument on punishment, prosecutor Pat Hardy urged jurors to impose the death penalty, saying Berry "chose to pick up Mr. Byrd . . . chose to beat him down, kick him . . . and chain him like an animal to the back of the pickup truck."
Speaking before the sentencing phase, Byrd's sister, Clara Taylor, said she was satisfied with the verdict.
"They were not swayed by emotion and did it on just the physical evidence, which showed he was [as] guilty as the others," she said. "I feel extremely sorry for the Berry family."