James Byrd Jr.’s body was found in pieces along a country road in Texas in June 1998.
Forensic investigators later determined the injuries that killed Byrd — cuts and scrapes around his ankles and other abrasions on his body — seemed to indicate his ankles had been wrapped together with a chain and that he had been dragged by a car.
The gruesome killing of Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, seemed to hark back to an era of lynchings and racially motivated slayings across the South. The trials of the three white men charged with the crime drew wide attention to Jasper, a town of about 7,500 in East Texas, just a short drive from the state’s boundary with Louisiana.
Texas officials announced this week that one of Byrd’s killers, John William King, 44, would be executed Wednesday night, two decades after being convicted. It would make him the fourth inmate executed this year in the United States, and it would be one of the final legal steps in a case that has prompted a national discussion about hate crime legislation. But will it provide closure in a case that remains painful 20 years later?
A gruesome scene
From the site where Byrd’s remains were found in 1998, police followed a blood trail up a logging road, finding a grassy area where it appeared a fight had occurred.
There they found “a cigarette lighter engraved with the words ‘KKK’ and ‘Possum,’ three cigarette butts, a can of ‘fix-a-flat,’ a CD, a pack of Marlboros, beer bottles, a button from Byrd’s shirt, Byrd’s baseball cap, and a wrench inscribed with the name ‘Berry,’” according to a summary written by a U.S. appeals court ruling on the case in 2018.
They began to ask around town to figure out whether Byrd had been seen the night he was killed.
One person told them he had seen Byrd at a party and saw him leave on foot to walk home around 1:30 or 2 a.m. Another had spotted him walking on the road. One of them had seen Byrd pass by in the back of a gray pickup truck with three white men in the cab.
A day after Byrd’s body was found, police pulled over a truck driven by a man named Shawn Berry for a traffic violation. In the vehicle, they found a tool set that matched the wrench found at the crime scene. Dried blood also was discovered under the truck and on one of the tires.
The blood matched Byrd’s DNA. The truck’s bed had a rust stain in the shape of a chain, according to court documents.
Sandals found at Berry’s apartment were stained with Byrd’s blood and appeared to match some of the footprints from the crime scene.
The cigarette butts were also tested for DNA, and one came up with a hit for King, who had previously served a prison sentence for burglary. There was other evidence that linked him to the crime.
King’s nickname in prison was “Possum,” investigators learned. He was charged, along with Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer, with capital murder.
“We had never seen anything that horrendous,” Mike Wilson, the lead investigator with the Jasper County District Attorney’s Office during the case, said in a phone interview.
King’s trial opened in January. Prosecutors from the Jasper County District Attorney’s office showed evidence of King’s “violent hatred” of black people, according to court documents.
“During his first stint in prison (which ended about a year before Byrd was killed), King was the ‘exalted cyclops’ of the Confederate Knights of America (CKA), a white-supremacist gang,” an appeals court wrote in 2018. “King’s drawings displayed scenes of racial lynching. Several witnesses testified that King would not go to a black person’s house and would leave a party if a black person showed up.” They also drew attention to his tattoos, which included a Confederate flag, Nazi “SS” lightning bolts, a cartoon in a Ku Klux Klan robe, “KKK,” a swastika, “Aryan Pride” and a depiction of a black man hanging from a tree by a noose.
King also had spoken of starting a race war while in prison, “and about initiating new members to his cause by having them kidnap and murder black people,” the appeals court wrote.
Prosecutors introduced a damning letter King had tried to get to Brewer while he was in jail, which said, in part: “Seriously, though, Bro, regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history and shall die proudly remembered if need be . . . Much Aryan love, respect, and honor, my brother in arms . . . Possum.”
Prosecutors called 43 witnesses; King’s attorney called three. King did not testify.
“Perhaps the most compelling testimony came on Monday, when a pathologist described how Mr. Byrd had been alive through much of his ordeal, probably until his body was cut in two,” the New York Times reported. Prosecutors played a videotape showing the nearly three miles of road along which Byrd had been dragged behind the truck.
After five days of testimony, a jury returned a verdict of guilty of capital murder within 2½ hours.
A long history of appeals
The two other defendants in the case, Brewer and Berry, were tried later. Brewer was convicted of capital murder and was executed in 2011. Berry, the last to be tried, was sentenced to life in prison; prosecutors said he joined the murder for the thrill but did not share Brewer’s and King’s white supremacist beliefs.
King, who has maintained his innocence, appealed his verdict numerous times. In 2000, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected an argument that his attorney had failed him by not investigating an alibi.
King then went to the federal court system, where a district court sided with the state, and kicked other claims back to the state level. He pressed on with complaints about his attorneys but gained little purchase in the court system.
In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit heard some of King’s claims but again found that his attorney’s performance was not “unreasonable.” “King does not show that the strongest evidence against him could be mitigated or explained away by competent counsel,” the court wrote. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
On Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 5-4 to reject King’s request to stay his scheduled execution.
His attorney, Richard Ellis, submitted a last-minute petition Tuesday to the nation’s highest court, arguing, among other things, that throughout the proceedings, his client “maintained his absolute innocence,” but still, King’s counsel at the time “conceded his guilt to murder at trial.”
The state submitted a brief in opposition Wednesday, arguing that the court lacks jurisdiction to review the claims.
Tensions in Jasper, Tex.
Some community members still talk about the negative impression left by the horrific crime and legal aftermath. Wilson, the lead investigator, said he felt the news media had given Jasper the image of a backward country town.
“But we weren’t,” he said in an interview. “I think our juries showed the country and the world that we were not the racist bunch of hicks that we were being portrayed as in the media.”
Some of the shadow that had been cast over the small town, which is about 40 percent white and 54 percent black, according to recent census statistics, remains. About 34 percent of the black people in the town live below the federal poverty threshold; and only one of five city council seats is held by a black person, the Associated Press reported.
A technology company nearly canceled plans for a new facility in the area after it learned about its history, changing its decision only after local clergy and community leaders appealed to the company’s president, according to the AP.
Newton County Sheriff Billy Rowles, who was the sheriff in Jasper County in 1998, told The Washington Post the case had “turned him into an old man.”
“I believe that for the majority of the citizens of Jasper, this is closure, this is the end,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s been a long wait and now it’s here, and I believe everybody will feel that this is the closure they needed.”
Byrd has been named as the motivation for laws to strengthen penalties for hate crimes that were passed in Texas and signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 (George W. Bush, when he was governor, had declined to support the measure, saying all crimes are hate crimes, according to the AP) and at the federal level, in a bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Byrd’s family has been divided over execution as a punishment for the crime.
Betty Boatner, one of Byrd’s sisters, told CNN after Brewer’s execution she had forgiven him. Byrd’s son Ross said at the time, “You can’t fight murder with murder.” Ross’s sister Renee Mullins said after Brewer’s execution she preferred a life sentence for her father’s killer, according to CNN.
But Louvon Byrd Harris, one of Byrd’s sisters, told The Post the execution would be “justice being served.”
“They were determined to treat him like an animal,” she said. “They were a danger to society. That’s when we start changing our opinion about the death penalty.”
Harris said she, two of her sisters and one of her nieces planned to attend King’s execution.
Harris runs the Byrd Foundation in her brother’s memory in Jasper, with the mission of “racial healing.” She says she has found some solace in the strengthening of hate crime laws in Texas, other states and federally since her brother’s murder. Still, she said, she did not want to whitewash the problems that remain.
Byrd’s grave has been desecrated twice, she said: once when someone kicked over the headstone and again when someone painted racial slurs nearby. It is now protected behind a locked gate.
“This is not an ending,” she said, “because hate is still around.”