Dragging death linked to racist group recruiting

Miami Herald/February 17, 1999
By Rick Lyman

Jasper, Texas -- John William King had dreamed of forming his own chapter of a white supremacist group but felt that he needed some dramatic event to catapult him into the limelight and attract members.

That, prosecutors said Tuesday for the first time, is the theory of why King and two other young white men chained a 49-year-old black man to the back of their pickup truck last June and dragged him three miles down a country road until his flayed and battered body was torn apart.

The case against King, 24, the first of the three suspects to come to trial in the hideous death of James Byrd Jr., opened Tuesday before a jury of seven men and five women -- all white except for one black man.

``Bill King needed to do something dramatic that would get media attention, which would attract, in their warped world, new members,'' Jasper County prosecutor Guy James Gray said in his 10-minute opening statement.

In a search of the apartment that King had been sharing with his fellow defendants -- Shawn Berry, 23, and Lawrence Brewer, 31 -- police found not only racist books but also an article from the December 1996 issue of Esquire magazine about the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi, a notorious racial slaying of the 1950s, pointing out how the accused killers had gone free when an all-white jury acquitted them. Police also found some of King's own racist writings, including a constitution he had written for an organization he hoped to create called the Texas Rebel Soldiers Division of the Confederate Knights of America. Also found were a code of ethics for the group, a list of bylaws, applications for membership and a letter to be sent out to new members.

The new organization was to begin operating on July 4, 1998, Gray said. Prosecutors hope to prove that the timing of Byrd's death, less than a month earlier, was intended to help in that beginning.

King became a member of the Confederate Knights of America, a prison-based white supremacy group, while serving a jail term in the mid-1990s. It was during this stretch that he met Brewer, also a member of the racist group. Berry had been a friend of King since their high school days.

Prosecutors also introduced letters on Tuesday that were written by King to a 15-year-old girl who had been his pen pal while he was in prison. Those letters included numerous profanities and racist statements, particularly about sexual relations between white women and black men.

Haden Cribbs, the chief defense lawyer, made no opening statement Tuesday but reserved the right to do so later. He did pause during one of the breaks in the trial to shake his head at the evidence that prosecutors had unveiled in the trial's opening day.

``The evidence does appear overwhelming,'' Cribbs said, but he cautioned against concluding that, as a result, King is guilty of the charges against him.

In letters to local newspapers, King has admitted to being in the pickup the night of the murder but has said he had left the others before the killing, which he blamed on a drug deal turned sour between Berry and Byrd. King's lawyers have yet to reveal their trial strategy.

King's father, suffering from emphysema, sat in the front row behind the defense table Tuesday, plastic tubing connected to an oxygen canister beneath the long bench. At the defense table, King sat quietly watching the testimony, often resting his head in his left hand. His two lawyers sat to his left.

On the other side of the aisle, behind the prosecution table and nearer the jury, sat two rows of the friends and relatives of Byrd. They shook their heads, hugged one another and often some of them had to leave the courtroom when the evidence became especially graphic.

When, at one point, Byrd's battered shoe was pulled out of an evidence bag, two of his sisters burst into tears. Seven local and federal prosecutors were arrayed around the prosecution table. Federal investigators and lawyers have helped in the investigation.

Lawyers said they expected the testimony to last only until the end of this week or early next. ``If things keep going the way they are, I expect it to be to the jury by Monday,'' Gray said.

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