Two decades after his conviction, John William King was executed Wednesday night in Texas for the murder of the James Byrd Jr., a crime that horrified the nation and prompted a national discussion about hate-crime legislation.
The Associated Press confirmed the execution shortly after 7 p.m. local time, about less than an hour after the Supreme Court declined to issue a stay in the case. King was administered a lethal injection at the state’s penitentiary in Huntsville.
The June 1998 attack instantly harked back to an era of lynchings and racially motivated slayings across the South. Prosecutors said Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was killed after being dragged from the back of a truck for nearly three miles. 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 border with Louisiana.
One of the men was convicted of capital murder and was executed in 2011; the other was sentenced to life in prison.
The execution of 44-year-old King is “justice being served,” said Louvon Byrd Harris, one of Byrd’s sisters.
“They were determined to treat him like an animal,” she told The Washington Post before the execution. “They were a danger to society. That’s when we start changing our opinion about the death penalty.”
King is the fourth inmate executed this year in the United States.
Byrd’s body was found in pieces along a Texas country road. Forensic investigators said injuries that killed Byrd — cuts and scrapes around his ankles and other abrasions on his body — indicated that his ankles had been wrapped together with a chain and that he had been dragged by a vehicle.
“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.
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 discovered under the truck and on one of the tires matched Byrd’s DNA.
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.
King’s nickname in prison was “Possum,” investigators learned. He was charged, along with Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer, with capital murder.
King’s trial opened in January 1999. 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.
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 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 played a videotape showing the nearly three miles of road along which Byrd had been dragged behind the truck.
Prosecutors called 43 witnesses; King’s attorney called three. King did not testify.
After five days of testimony, a jury returned a verdict of guilty of capital murder within 2½ hours.
King, who maintained his innocence, appealed his verdict numerous times with complaints about the lawyer he had during his trial. On Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 5-4 to reject King’s request to stay his scheduled execution.
His current lawyer, Richard Ellis, submitted a last-minute petition Tuesday to the nation’s highest court that said that his client had “maintained his absolute innocence” and argued his initial lawyer had conceded his guilt against King’s wishes during the trial 20 years ago.
The state submitted a brief in opposition, arguing that the court lacks jurisdiction to review the claims, and the Supreme Court denied the stay of execution about 30 minutes after it had been scheduled on Wednesday night.
King had no personal witnesses and did not speak any final words, but he did issue a written statement: “Capital Punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment,” according to the Texas Tribune.
He died about 12 minutes after he was given a lethal dose of pentobarbital, at 6:56 p.m., according to the Tribune.
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. “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.”
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 Associated Press) 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 that she would rather it had been a life sentence, according to CNN.
Harris said she has found some solace in the strengthening of hate-crime laws around the country since her brother’s killing. Still, she said, she did not want to overlook 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.”
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.