Twenty Years Ago, James Byrd Jr Was Lynched in Texas by Three White Supremacists. Now, One of His Killers is Set to be Executed.

A family photo of James Byrd Jr.
BYRD FAMILY

For the past two decades, John William King has sat on death row in Texas, waiting to die for his part in an atrocious hate crime that shocked America. Now, finally, it is his time. This is the story of his victim.

James Byrd Jr., 49, left a party in his hometown of Jasper, Texas, at around 2 a.m. on June 7, 1998, and began walking home down a dark rural road.

Along the way, three young men passing by in a gray pick-up, one of whom Byrd Jr. recognized from around town, and let him hitch a ride in the back.

Byrd Jr., a father of three, didn’t make it home.

The trio were white supremacists. The ringleader King, 23, with his friends Shawn Berry, 23, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, drove Byrd Jr. up a dirt logging road. They beat him and chained him to the back of the truck by his ankles.

For a mile and a half, they dragged Byrd Jr. along Huff Creek Road.

He held his head up to protect it, rolling his body from side to side to cope with the pain as the friction wore his skin and flesh down to the bone, his ribs breaking on the bumps.

Suddenly, Byrd Jr. hit an exposed culvert, tearing his right arm, neck, and head from his body.

Byrd Jr.’s chained remains were hauled further down the road and dumped in front of a black church, left to be discovered on Sunday morning.

Police traced the rest of Byrd Jr.’s body back up the road and the dirt track.

They began an investigation into a sadistic lynching that would change the law in America.

John William King displaying some of his many tattoos to the camera.
JASPER COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE

‘There was no other verdict’

The three trials of the accused in the Byrd Jr. lynching were straightforward because the case against them was compelling.

They were known hardcore racists. They were seen on the night driving with Byrd Jr. in the back of the pick-up by his friend who, fatefully, couldn’t give him a ride home from the party. And they clumsily left a trail of forensic and circumstantial evidence behind them.

“I had a lot of confidence in the DA system and the criminal justice system at that time,” Clara Taylor, Byrd Jr.’s sister, who sat in on all three trials, tells Newsweek.

“I think because of the time we lived in, some were saying they’d never get a conviction of a white man for killing a black. Well, I knew by listening to the evidence and with everything going on there was no other verdict for them to come [to].”

During King’s trial, the jury was shown the racist tattoos all over his body, including one of a hanged black man.

The court heard how King, who fetishized the KKK, would proudly show off his tattoos and say: “See my little n***** hanging from a tree.”

“King was the leader of a Klan group called ‘Confederate Knights of America—Texas Rebel Soldier Division’,” Guy James Gray, the former Jasper County district attorney who prosecuted King, tells Newsweek.

“His particular group was formed in the Beto I unit of the Texas prison system. He was a prolific writer with impressive skill for a high school drop-out.”

Dr. Tommy Brown, a forensic pathologist who carried out the victim’s autopsy, testified in harrowing detail about the extent of Byrd Jr.’s injuries.

As Brown’s description shows, the term “dragging” neutralizes the depravity of what murder by this method really means for the victim.

Almost all of Byrd Jr.’s front ribs were broken. Most of his body was covered in what Brown described as “massive brush burn abrasions.”

His testicles were missing and Brown found gravel in the scrotal sac. The knees, feet and buttocks were worn down. So was the flesh on the left cheek, exposing the jawbone.

Toes were missing. Muscle was exposed on the legs.

But there were no injuries to Byrd Jr.’s brain and skull. Brown concluded that Byrd Jr. was conscious and holding up his head until the culvert killed him.

Moreover, the formation of some of Byrd Jr.’s wounds left Brown to conclude that he was moving deliberately during the dragging to relieve the pain.

“I think I can probably remember all the details of evidence, of trials, of juries. Everything about it. It’s just about as raw today as it was 20 years ago to me,” Gray says. “It was tremendously emotional.”

King was the first to be convicted of capital murder and sentenced. On February 25, 1999, a little over 20 years ago, King received the death penalty.

“I thought it was truly amazing that in this state that they were able to find a guilty verdict because there was no sign of remorse in him whatsoever,” Taylor tells Newsweek.

In September that year, Brewer also received the death penalty. He was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011.

“This had never happened before,” Gray says. “Never in the history of the state of Texas had a white man been given the death sentence for the murder of a black man. The old heads around said it couldn’t be done.”

Berry was spared the death penalty but sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the murder at the culmination of his trial in November 1999.

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SOURCE: Newsweek, Shane Croucher