White racist convicted in brutal dragging death

Jurors hear evidence on death penalty; Prosecutor: 'You can't tolerate this'

Miami Herald/February 24, 1999
By Paul Duggan

Jasper, Texas -- John William King, a self-proclaimed white supremacist covered with racist tattoos, was convicted of murder Tuesday in the death of a black man who was dragged on a chain behind a pickup truck last June.

The jury, which deliberated for less than 2 1/2 hours, chose its only black member as foreman, allowing him to deliver the verdict in an apparent gesture repudiating the gruesome racial murder that shocked and shamed the quiet little city of Jasper in the East Texas woodlands.

King, 24, a former prison inmate, sat expressionless as the foreman passed the verdict sheet to Judge Joe Bob Golden.

Besides convicting King of murdering James Byrd Jr., 49, in one of the grisliest racial crimes of the post-civil rights era, jurors found that the dragging also constituted a kidnapping, meaning that under Texas law King can be sentenced to death.

To a smattering of applause from spectators, the jury filed from the crowded courtroom moments after the verdict, which climaxed a weeklong trial. They returned a half-hour later for the start of the trial's penalty phase, which lawyers said will likely conclude Thursday.

If the jurors decide against the death penalty, King will be sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 40 years.

"I'm very satisfied with the length of the deliberations, and I'm very satisfied with their choice of a foreman," District Attorney Guy James Gray said outside the courthouse after the verdict.

"I think any jury in the country would feel the same way" about Byrd's murder last June 7 on a remote stretch of backwoods pavement. "You can't tolerate this stuff. You can't put up with it."

Gray and his assistants also will prosecute King's two alleged accomplices -- Shawn Allen Berry, 24, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31 -- in separate death-penalty trials later.

In King's trial, prosecutors argued that he instigated the murder to draw attention to a white supremacist group that he had hoped to organize in Jasper, a racially mixed city of about 8,000 that is 125 miles northeast of Houston.

Riders 'out of hell'

In his closing argument, another prosecutor, Pat Hardy, described King and his codefendants as "three robed riders coming straight out of hell."

Noting that Byrd's dismembered body was left by the gate of an old black cemetery, Hardy said the three wanted "to show their defiance to God and Christianity and everything most people in this county stand for."

Byrd, unemployed and living alone in a subsidized apartment, was walking home from a family gathering after midnight when he was picked up and driven to woods outside the city. There, he was beaten, then chained at the ankles and dragged behind a pickup truck for about three miles.

Alive and in pain

A pathologist testified Monday that Byrd was dragged alive and in excruciating pain along the bumpy county road. When the defendant's pickup swerved into a left-hand curve, Byrd's chained body swung to the right, where he was beheaded by a concrete culvert.

That testimony was crucial for the prosecution. The underlying felony of kidnapping is what made Byrd's murder a death-penalty offense. For Byrd to have been kidnapped under Texas' definition of the crime, he had to have been alive while being dragged.

"It's like a breath of fresh air for me," one of Byrd's daughters, Renee Mullins, said after the verdict. Like other relatives of the victim who filled two rows at the front of the spectator gallery during the trial, she was in tears, declaring, "It's a lot of burden that's been lifted."

A sister of Byrd's, Mary Verrett, said King got a fair trial. "It was not decided on emotions, but on the facts," she said. "And that's all we wanted."

'One down and two to go'

"All I know is, it's one down and two to go," said Ross Byrd, a son of the victim.

In Florida, which has a tough hate crimes law, Arthur Teitelbaum, chairman of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Hate Crimes Task Force, applauded the verdict.

"The jury rendered swift and true justice in a case which exposed the depths of depravity to which hatred can lead," he said Tuesday. "It was a proper verdict."

In the days after Byrd's killing, which trained a national spotlight on this city, stunned residents described it as an aberration, saying that blacks and whites here had long lived together. Several city council and school board members are black, as is Jasper's mayor.

Rather than ignite discord, residents said, the murder led to greater understanding between blacks and whites.

One of Jasper's most prominent black residents, Walter Diggles, director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, stood outside the courthouse Tuesday with the all-white prosecution team and with Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles.

"We're very proud of the district attorney, and we're very proud of the law enforcement officers for seeing justice [done] in this particular case," Diggles said. "When you see a jury, and they pick the only black member of the jury to [deliver] the verdict, that makes us very proud of Jasper County."

The Dallas Morning News reported Tuesday that the jury foreman is a 24-year-old prison guard who went to middle school with King.

Three defense witnesses

Through five days of testimony, prosecutors presented such strong evidence linking King to the murder that King's lawyers called only three witnesses and rested their case an hour after beginning it Monday. Although King did not testify, his words rang through the trial as prosecutors showed jurors an array of his writings.

A note that King sent to one of his co-defendants after their arrests concluded:

"Seriously though bro, reguardless [sic] of the outcome of this, we have made history and shall die proudly remembered if need be . . . Gotta go. Much Aryan Love. Respect and Honor my brother in arms." Prosecutors have said that King developed his white supremacist views while in prison on a burglary charge from 1995 to 1997.

King's father, Ronald King, 68, suffering from emphysema and breathing through an oxygen tube, sat in the courtroom in a wheelchair, sobbing as the verdict was delivered. The elder King has apologized repeatedly to the Byrd family since the murder, and he offered his condolences again Tuesday.

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