Texas sheriff "knew somebody was murdered because he was black"

CNN/February 16, 1999

Jasper, Texas -- The local sheriff was the first witness to take the stand Tuesday in the capital murder trial of a white supremacist charged with the gruesome killing of a black man dragged behind a truck last year.

"I'm a brand-new sheriff. I didn't even know the definition of a hate crime, but I knew somebody had been murdered because he had been black," Sheriff Billy Rowles testified. "Once we saw the KKK emblem on the cigarette lighter, that's when we started having some bad thoughts."

Rowles said other evidence besides the lighter with three interlocking K's convinced him that the incident he was investigating was no hit-and-run. The sheriff said there were no skid marks, and the bloody trail did not run parallel to the tire tracks.

"It was going through my mind.... Somebody's dragging something," Rowles testified.

Rowles was one of eight witnesses who testified after opening statements were made Tuesday. Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray told jurors that defendant John William King wanted to form a racist group and "needed to do something dramatic in order to gain in their warped world respect for his newly formed gang."

The prosecutor also said in his opening statement that physical evidence from the East Texas crime scene, racist tattoos and detailed written plans for the new hate group will link King to the gruesome murder of James Byrd Jr. Good possibility of death penalty

King, 24, pleaded not guilty as the court session began in Jasper, a town of 8,000 people 100 miles northeast of Houston.

He has written letters to newspapers denying involvement in Byrd's death. "I'm simply a victim of a judicial conspiracy," King wrote.

He faces life in prison or death by lethal injection if convicted. Two other men, Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, and Shawn Allen Berry, 23, are to be tried later.

King's lawyer, Haden "Sonny" Cribbs, declined to make an opening statement. He admitted to reporters that his client is a little apprehensive.

"You're talking about whether this boy lives or dies -- and there's a good possibility he could get the death penalty," Cribbs pointed out.

A day earlier, Cribbs had acknowledged that the evidence against his client appeared overwhelming. "But you've got to prove the accused has done the offense." 'Full of hate'

Gray told the 12-member jury (six white men, one black man and five white women) that writings found in King's apartment showed he was trying to recruit members for a hate group known as the Texas Rebel Soldiers and "needed to do something dramatic that would attract media attention."

"This young man is full of hate," Gray said.

The act he chose was the brutal murder of Byrd, 49, on June 7 of last year, Gray said.

Witness Steven Scott, 18, testified Tuesday he saw an obviously drunk Byrd staggering down the road that night. Scott said he decided not to offer him a ride.

After Scott arrived home a short time later, he said, he saw a pickup drive by with Byrd seated in the back. Three whites were in the truck cab.

Prosecutor Gray said King, Brewer and Berry went out in Berry's truck after a night of drinking in the Jasper apartment the three ex-convicts shared. They found Byrd walking along the street and offered him a ride.

Instead of taking him home, they drove him to a remote spot in the woods near Jasper where they beat him, chained him to Berry's truck and dragged him two miles on a country road, Gray said.

Gruesome police photographs displayed for the jury showed that Byrd's head and right shoulder were torn from his torso. Evidence includes tattoos, papers

Contrary to earlier reports, prosecutors now say Byrd was alive and conscious when the torture began. Marks on his body indicated that Byrd tried to use his elbows to keep his head above the pavement as he was dragged along, Gray said.

Neighbors found the main part of Byrd's body dumped in front of a black cemetery.

Gray said the three men were linked to the crime by evidence ranging from Byrd's blood on their shoes to DNA taken from saliva on cigarette butts and beer bottles at the crime scene.

The lighter found at the scene was engraved with the word "Possum," the nickname King picked up in prison.

Gray said King's tattoo-coated body was a walking exhibit of racial hatred. The tattoos, also acquired during a prison stint for a 1992 burglary, included a black man hanging from a tree, Nazi symbols, the words "Aryan Pride," and the patch for the Confederate Knights of America, a gang of white supremacist inmates, he said.

King's Texas Rebel Soldiers were to be a division of the Confederate Knights, Gray told the jury.

In the defendants' apartment, police found papers written by King that laid out his plan to form the Rebel Soldiers. Included were the group bylaws, application forms and letters of recruitment, some aimed at high school students, Gray said.

A friend of King's, Michelle Chapman, testified that the defendant sent her letters from prison filled with racist vitriol and questions about whether she would have sex with blacks.

"It's my opinion that any race-traitoring bitch should be hung up alongside those niggers," he allegedly wrote. Stun belt on suspect

King, clean-cut and wearing a brown checked shirt with a bulletproof vest, smiled briefly at his grim-faced family when he entered the courtroom.

Police have strapped a 50,000-volt "stun belt" to the defendant that can be triggered remotely to incapacitate him should he act up or try to escape.

During Gray's opening statement to the jury, King showed no emotion, but stared down at the table in front of him.

The opening day of testimony in the racially charged case was under tight security including a ring of state troopers stationed around the Jasper County Courthouse.

The 110-year-old building has been outfitted with metal detectors, package scanners and numerous security cameras.

But the tree-lined town square, where groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the New Black Panthers have demonstrated since the murder, was quiet. State District Judge Joe Bob Golden has barred any rallies or signs regarding the case for two blocks. Family remembers Byrd's life, not death

Despite the brutal nature of Byrd's death, his family prefers to remember him as he appears on a 2-year-old home video, shared publicly for the first time with CNN. It shows Byrd playing a piano as he sings a favorite gospel song, "I Walk With God."

"He always said, 'When I leave this Earth, the Earth will know James Byrd Jr. has been here,'" said his sister, Mary Verrett.

Byrd's family is trying to deal with its grief by creating a foundation in hopes of building an education center to encourage racial healing.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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