Second Man Convicted in Dragging Death

The New York Times/September 21, 1999

Bryan, Tex. -- After a week of testimony that detailed a crime of almost unimaginable brutality, a Texas jury on Monday found a racist ex-convict guilty of capital murder in the beating and dragging death of a 49-year-old black man last year.

Jurors must now decide whether the defendant, Lawrence Russell Brewer, 32, one of three white men charged in the June 7, 1998, killing of James Byrd Jr., should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

Arguments and testimony in the death-penalty phase of the trial began this afternoon and were expected to end on Tuesday. If the jury does not recommend a death sentence, Brewer will be eligible for parole in 40 years. Brewer did not react to the verdict, but members of Byrd's family in the courtroom smiled, wept and gently patted the shoulder of the family patriarch, James Byrd Sr., whose eyes brimmed with tears as the jury's decision was read.

The case had drawn national attention both because of the racial aspect of the murder -- Brewer admitted on the witness stand that he had led a prison-based white supremacist group -- and the grisly nature of the killing.

Byrd was beaten, sprayed in the face with black paint, then chained by the ankles to a pickup truck and dragged for three miles along an isolated rural logging road near the East Texas town of Jasper, according to testimony by Brewer.

In final arguments, lawyers for the prosecution and the defense noted how people around the nation had seen the case as an example of the ugliness of racial hatred.

"This isn't our case," Guy James Gray, the Jasper County District Attorney, told the jury. "This case belongs to everyone in the State of Texas and maybe the whole nation. You are the law. You are the state. You are the nation."

Defense lawyers had urged jurors not to be swayed by the public outrage that gruesome details of the murder had provoked.

"There is a tremendous amount of pressure for a conviction in this case," said Layne Walker, a lawyer for Brewer. But, Walker told the jurors, "take whatever public pressure you feel and whatever sentiments you feel and leave them outside the door."

John William King, 24, the first man tried in the case, was convicted in Jasper in February and sentenced to death.

The third man charged, Shawn Allen Berry, 24, will be tried later this year. Last week, witnesses from the Jasper County Sheriff's Department told jurors of finding an armless, headless body and backtracking along the dragging route to recover a head, dentures, beer bottles, cigarette butts and Byrd's wallet. DNA evidence presented connected the beer bottles and cigarette butts to the men charged in the case.

On Friday, testifying in his own defense, Brewer said the attack on Byrd started when King and Byrd began fighting. Berry then slit Byrd's throat, Brewer said.

Alternately combative and contrite on the witness stand, Brewer tried to portray himself as a reluctant bystander to the murder even as he admitted kicking Byrd in the side hard enough to injure his own toe and spraying black paint into Byrd's face.

Mr. Brewer wept openly as he denied that he had meant to kill Mr. Byrd. "I didn't mean to cause his death.

I had no intention of doing -- killing nobody," he sobbed.

Mr. Brewer blamed Shawn Berry entirely for the crime, saying he had slashed Mr. Byrd's throat with a pocket knife, single-handedly tied him to the pickup truck with a logging chain and then dragged the body before dumping it in the cemetery of a black church.

But today, Mr. Gray told the jury: "It took all three of these men to subdue James Byrd.

He's alive, he's conscious, and he's fighting for his life.

It probably took all three of them to get him down, wrap the chain around him and get the chain tied up to the truck.

It took all three."

At the trial, prosecutors also produced a letter written from Mr. Brewer's Jasper County jail cell to a fellow member of a racist prison gang in which he had boasted, "Well, I did it. And I am no longer a virgin." Defense lawyers argued that the letter referred to an unrelated sexual experience. In another letter that prosecutors contended demonstrated prior intent, this one written in 1993 to his wife at the time, Mr. Brewer wrote of feeling "as though I've been drug 120 miles chained by feet to the bumper of Corvette doing 90 m.p.h."

Though admitting it was an odd coincidence, Mr. Brewer said under cross-examination that the phrase had been "just a figure of speech." Prosecutors believe that Mr. King led the other two men to commit the murder, based in part on ideological teachings acquired while he and Mr. Brewer were in the racist Confederate Knights of America prison gang. Mr. Brewer's body is covered with tattoos of white supremacist slogans and satanist beliefs, according to trial testimony and photographs entered as evidence.

Mr. Brewer ran away from his home in Sulphur Springs, Tex., as a teen-ager and has been in and out of prisons over the last 16 years for burglary and drug convictions and parole violations.

Judge Monte Lawlis of State District Court had moved Mr. Brewer's trial from Jasper, 150 miles east, to this city of about 60,000 at the request of prosecutors anxious to outflank potential defense claims of local pre-trial bias in the area where the killing occurred.

The 10 white and 2 Hispanic jurors began deliberations at 10:30 A.M. and reached a verdict four hours later.

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