Man behind 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. to be executed via lethal injection this week
44-year-old John William King will be put to death in the Huntsville Unit in Texas for the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr.
A white supremacist who was involved in the horrific 1998 murder of a black man where he and two others tied the victim to the back of their pick-up truck and dragged him for three miles down a Texas asphalt road is scheduled to be executed this week.
44-year-old John William King will be put to death in Huntsville on Wednesday, April 24, after a Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 on Monday afternoon to deny a motion for a 120-day reprieve. The board also voted 7-0 against a motion for commutation.
King and two other white supremacists, Shawn Allen Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer, killed 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998, in what is still regarded as one of the most gruesome hate crimes in US history.
In the early morning of that day, King, Berry, and Brewer ran into Byrd and offered him a ride home. Byrd accepted as he was acquainted with Berry, but instead of taking him home, the three men took Byrd to a remote country road, beat him severely, urinated and defecated on him, and then chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck.
The trio then dragged him along the asphalt road for about three miles, and though they claimed they had slit his throat beforehand, forensic evidence and an autopsy suggested that Byrd was alive during much of the dragging. In fact, Byrd only died about halfway along the route when his right arm and head were severed when his body hit a culvert.
After dragging him for three miles, King, Berry, and Brewer dumped his mutilated remains in front of an African-American church, and then drove off to a barbeque. Byrd's decapitated remains were only found the next morning when a motorcyclist came across it, with police also finding his remains littered in 81 different places.
Detectives didn't have to look too long considering how much evidence had been left behind. For one, along the area where Byrd was dragged, police found a wrench with "Berry" written on it. They also found a lighter inscribed with 'possum,' which was King's prison nickname. All three were apprehended, with the question turning to how they should be prosecuted.
King was also known to sport several racist tattoos, which included a woodpecker in KKK garb, a silhouette of a black man lynched from a cross, the lightning-bolt SS of the Nazi Schutzstaffel, the words "Aryan Pride," and a crest with the Confederate flag and a burning cross. Officials also intercepted a jailhouse letter from him where he expressed pride in killing Byrd and an acceptance that he knew he would likely be put to death. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!" he reportedly wrote.
State law enforcement officials and the Jasper district attorney took this, as well as the fact that all three were well-known white supremacists, into consideration and ruled the murder as a hate crime.
Brewer and King, who had become friends with one another after meeting in the Beto Unit prison, were both sentenced to death. The former was executed in the Huntsville Unit on September 21, 2011, and expressed no remorse for the crime, telling KHOU 11 News in Boston, "As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I'd do it all over again, to tell you the truth."
While a motive was never determined, it may have been explained by King, who had only recently been released from prison at the time of the murder. He claimed he had been repeatedly gang raped in prison by black inmates. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Huntsville Unit this coming Wednesday
Berry, who claimed the Brewer and King were entirely responsible for the crime, was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison. The Beaumont Enterprise reported that, as of 2008, he was living in protective custody at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Ramsey Unit, where he spends 23 hours per day in an 8-by-6-foot cell. He will be eligible to apply for parole only in 2038 when he is 63-years-old.
As a reaction to the murder, Byrd's family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. Louvon Byrd Harris, one of Byrd's sisters, said her family also still hopes to build a multicultural center and museum which will promote diversity and education in Jasper in honor of Byrd.
The 77th Texas Legislature passed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which became state law in 2001 with the signature of Governor Rick Perry, who inherited George Bush Jr.'s unexpired term after he became president.
Then the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, more commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009.