Texas Slaying Linked to Bid To Organize Racist Group

Washington Post/February 17, 1999
By Paul Duggan

Jasper, Texas -- John William King, one of three defendants in the dragging death of a black man chained behind a pickup truck, was portrayed in court today as a young man "full of hate" who hoped the gruesome murder would excite interest in a white supremacist group he was planning to organize.

A prosecutor, opening King's death penalty trial, offered new details about the alleged motive for a killing on June 7 that has been described as one of the grisliest racial crimes of the post-civil rights era and trained a national spotlight on this small city in the East Texas pine woods 125 miles north of Houston. King, 24, had hoped to form his own hate group, contended the prosecutor, Guy James Gray. The name he allegedly chose: The Texas Rebel Soldiers Division of the Confederate Knights of America.

"This young man is full of hate, and he has all kinds of tattoos that reflect his anger and hate," Gray told the jury in his opening statement.

When investigators searched King's low-rent apartment after the dragging death, Gray said, they found paperwork he had drafted for the Texas Rebel Soldiers, including a constitution, bylaws and membership applications. The killing, Gray said, was "a dramatic" racial crime meant to "attract new members" to the planned organization.

In the 110-year-old Jasper County courthouse, Gray's low-key, 15-minute address to the jury opened a day of testimony focused mainly on the discovery of the dismembered victim, James Byrd Jr., 49, and evidence allegedly left at the crime scene by King and his two accused accomplices. Both will have separate death penalty trials after King's, which is expected to last about a week.

Byrd, who was unemployed and afflicted by seizures, lived alone in a small apartment in this racially mixed city of 8,000. He was walking home from a family party in the predawn hours when the three men allegedly picked him up. Investigators said he was driven into a pine forest east of Jasper, beaten, then chained at the ankles and dragged behind a pickup truck for about three miles, much of it on pavement. His head, right shoulder and right arm were torn off by the jagged edge of a concrete roadside culvert. "Mr. King, how do you plead to that indictment," Judge Joe Bob Golden asked after the capital murder charge had been read.

"Not guilty, your honor," King replied softly.

His attorneys deferred their opening statement until the prosecution has finished presenting its case. King, resting his chin in his left palm, spent most of the day seated quietly beside his lawyers in the old courtroom, with its vaulted wood ceiling and slow-moving, overhead fans. The long sleeves of his blue-and-brown plaid shirt hid the tattoos, many of them racist, that cover both his arms.

More than a dozen of Byrd's relatives filled two rows at the front of the spectator gallery, their faces hard. They and other black residents of Japser have praised the white sheriff, Billy Rowles, for his handling of the case, and whites here have applauded black residents for their calm in the months leading up to the first trial in the killing.

The jury's racial makeup had been kept secret until the panel members took their seats this morning: Eleven white men and women and one black man, plus two alternate jurors, both white.

Gray warned them about what they would hear and see, including graphic photos of Byrd's dismembered remains, showing parts of his body where the skin had been torn away to the bone. "I must ask you not only to look at them; I must ask you to study them," Gray said.

Texas's death penalty law requires the prosecution to prove that a murder was committed during one of several specified felonies. In this case, prosecutors contend that Byrd's dragging constituted a kidnapping. For Byrd to have been kidnapped under Texas's definition of the crime, he had to have been alive while being dragged.

"James Byrd, at the time he was chained in the back of the pickup truck, was alive," Gray said in court during jury selection, citing an autopsy. "He was conscious. And he was using his elbows and his body in every way he could to keep his head and shoulders above the pavement."

Today he told jurors that the wound patterns shown in the photos would make it "plain and obvious" that Byrd was conscious. Later, over a defense objection, each juror was handed a bound book of 13 crime scene and morgue photos, the black cover labeled: "James Byrd Jr."

Rowles and another investigator described an array of evidence found in the wooded area where Byrd was beaten, including several personal items allegedly linked to King and his accused accomplices, Shawn Allen Berry, 24, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 32.

King and Brewer were prison cellmates in the mid-1990s, King serving a sentence for burglary and Brewer doing time for a drug offense. Gray said the two were involved with a prison group using the name Confederate Knights of America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says is a North Carolina-based faction of the Ku Klux Klan.

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