James Byrd Jr., an African-American resident of Jasper, Texas, is murdered by three white men in what appears to be a racially motivated incident. Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray calls the killing “probably the most brutal I’ve ever seen” in 20 years as a prosecutor. Within hours of the attack, John William “Bill” King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry are arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping. All three men have prison records and room together in a local apartment; King and Brewer are members of the white supremacist groups Aryan Nations and Confederate Knights of America, the latter an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The police find racist literature in their apartment (Cropper 6/10/1998; CNN 7/6/1998) , including documents written by King and Brewer indicating that they intended to start a new white supremacist group of their own. (Lyman 2/17/1999) Local Klan organizations quickly disavow any connection to the crimes. (Bragg 6/17/1998)
Last Ride - Byrd, walking home from a bridal shower, accepts a ride from the three; by all accounts, he does not know the men. Instead of taking Byrd home, the three drive him to a wooded area, beat him, chain him by the ankles to Berry’s truck, and drag him down a rough logging road east of Jasper. The dragging tears Byrd’s body into pieces; his severed head, neck, and right arm are discovered about a mile from where the three finally dump his mangled torso. During the trial, a doctor testifies that he believes Byrd is alive and perhaps conscious until his body strikes a culvert, where his head and arm are torn from his body. Dr. Thomas Brown tells the court, “He was alive when the head, shoulder, and right arm were separated.” The local sherriff, tipped off by an anonymous phone call, finds Byrd’s remains. A trail of blood, body parts, and personal effects stretches for two miles down the road. Berry, who cooperates with police and leads them to King and Brewer, later tells investigators that Brewer sprays Byrd’s face with black paint before he and King chain him to the back of the truck. (State of Texas 7/1/1998; CNN 7/6/1998; CNN 7/8/1998; CNN 2/22/1999) Investigators find a cigarette lighter dropped at the scene, inscribed with a Klan insignia, that belongs to King. (Cropper 6/10/1998) Experts also tie blood on the truck, and on the three men’s clothes and shoes, to Byrd. (New York Times 2/19/1999; New York Times 9/24/1999) Berry’s involvement surprises many area residents, who characterize him as a petty criminal who they believed was incapable of being involved in such a brutal crime. A friend says: “I never heard Shawn say anything racist. I have a lot of black friends. He has a lot of black friends. All this news has just shocked me and everyone he knows.” Friends are less surprised at the involvement of King and Brewer, both of whom they say had their racial hatred intensified during their prison terms. “The level of racism in prison is very high,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The truth is, you may go in completely unracist and emerge ready to kill people who don’t look like you.” (Bragg 6/17/1998)
Funeral Draws National Attention - Dozens of civil rights leaders and national politicians join area residents at Byrd’s funeral, and call for an end to racial hatred and intolerance (see June 13, 1998).
Father Apologizes - King’s father, Ronald L. King, also a Jasper resident, releases a letter apologizing for his son’s actions. The letter reads in part: “My sympathy goes out to the Byrd family. There is no reason for a person to take the life of another, and to take it in such a manner is beyond any kind of reasoning. It hurts me deeply to know that a boy I raised and considered to be the most loved boy I knew could find it in himself to take a life. This deed cannot be undone, but I hope we can all find it in our hearts to go forward in peace and with love for all. Let us find in our hears love for our fellow man. Hate can only destroy. Again, I want to say I’m sorry.”
Clinton: Town Must 'Join Together across Racial Lines' - President Clinton calls the murder shocking and outrageous, and says the residents of Jasper “must join together across racial lines to demonstrate that an act of evil like this is not what this country is all about.… I think we’ve all been touched by it, and I can only imagine that virtually everyone who lives there is in agony at this moment.” (Cropper 6/11/1998)
Indications of Klan Activity in Area - The mayor of Jasper, R. C. Horn, an African-American, says that the city is relatively peaceful from a racial aspect, and says the city “has a strong bind together, both black and white.” But Gary Bledsoe of the Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says the area of east Texas that contains Jasper has been a center of Klan activity for years. Bledsoe points to serious problems in the nearby town of Vidor, for years a de facto “white town,” that centered around integrating a housing project. Lou Ann Reed, a local cashier, says she deplores the killing: “I don’t think anybody should be treated that way, I don’t care what color they are. Not even an animal.” Reed, who is white, refuses to answer when asked if she has heard that some white residents might have sympathies with white supremacist groups; when asked if the killing surprised her, she says, “Nothing surprises me anymore.” Black residents tell reporters that harassment and physical abuse from whites is not uncommon, and there are areas in and around town they have learned not to frequent for fear of being attacked. (Cropper 6/10/1998; Cropper 6/11/1998) A New York Times editorial calls the murder a “lynching by pickup truck.” (New York Times 6/14/1998) Both local Klan organizations and black militant organizations march in Jasper shortly after Byrd’s murder (see June 27, 1998).
Hate Crime - Texas authorities charge King, Brewer, and Berry with a variety of felonies, including murder and kidnapping; the addition of hate crime charges makes them eligible for the death penalty. During their trials, both Brewer and King are depicted as unrepentant white racists. King’s former supervisor, roofing contractor Dennis Symmack, says that though a quiet man, King harbors strongly racist views. “Bill was a quiet man, not a talker,” Symmack testifies, and recalls King expressing “an intense dislike of blacks.” Symmack says that according to King, “[B]lacks are different from whites and are taking over everything—taking over welfare.” Tattoo artist Johnny Mosley, a former inmate who served time with King, says that King asked for an array of racist tattoos—including one depicting the lynching of a black man and another reading “Aryan Pride”—in large part to intimidate other inmates and to avoid being sexually assaulted. (CNN 7/6/1998; New York Times 7/7/1998; New York Times 2/19/1999; CNN 2/22/1999; Lyman 2/24/1999) During the trial, King claims that the crime was not racially motivated, but was impelled by Berry’s desire to buy drugs from Byrd; additionally, he claims that Berry’s abuse of steroids prompted the brutalization of their victim, and that he himself had nothing to do with assaulting Byrd. Authorities find King’s claims entirely baseless (New York Times 11/12/1998) ; instead, prosecutors tell the court that King wanted to start his own white supremacist group, and targeted Byrd as a way to shine attention on himself and gain members. (Lyman 2/17/1999; CNN 2/22/1999) During his trial, Brewer attempts to blame Berry for the actual murder, an argument that the jury disregards in favor of a letter written by Brewer bragging about his role in the murder and saying: “Well, I did it. And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.” (New York Times 9/24/1999) All three are found guilty; King and Brewer are sentenced to death, and Berry receives life in prison with no chance of parole until 2039. Both King and Brewer later write racist graffiti on the walls of their jail cells. In a jailhouse letter to Brewer, King will write of his pride in the crime, and accepts the fact that he may die for it. “Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history,” King says in the letter intercepted by jail officials. “Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!” (New York Times 11/18/1998; Lyman 2/17/1999; New York Times 2/19/1999; Lyman 2/24/1999; New York Times 9/24/1999) During the closing arguments of King’s trial, Gray discusses the concept of violent racism: “It’s something that’s a virus. It’s something that’s dangerous. It’s something that spreads from one person to another.” (Lyman 2/24/1999)
Murders Sparks Hate-Crime Legislation - The murder of Byrd and a subsequent murder of a gay Colorado student, Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After), will be a catalyst for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (see October 28, 2009).
Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, is murdered on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, who is openly gay, is found brutally beaten, burned, and tied to a fence, where he hung, comatose, for some 18 hours before being found. He is rushed to a local hospital, but dies five days later. Local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are quickly charged with Shepard’s death. Because of the extreme brutalization they inflicted on Shepard, prosecutors chararcterize the murder as a hate crime: according to the charges, the two killed Shepard because of their hatred of homosexuals. (Brooke 10/10/1998; ABC News 11/26/2004) The girlfriends of the two accused murderers are also arrested and charged as accomplices after the fact, but the charges are mitigated after they cooperate with the investigation. (Brooke 10/10/1998) Investigators quickly learn that Shepard had been beaten twice in recent months by other Laramie residents who, he said, attacked him because of his homosexuality. (CNN 10/12/1998) “He was very open about his sexuality,” says a friend, anthropology student Tina LaBrie. “I admired him for that because it is very courageous to be yourself even when others disagree.” (Brooke 10/10/1998)
Fatal Truck Ride - Henderson and McKinney approach Shepard at a bar with the intention of robbing him. According to the two, Shepard, unaware of their plans, tells them he is too drunk to drive and asks for a ride. In some versions of the events, McKinney and Henderson represent themselves as gay in order to entice Shepard into the truck. The three climb into McKinney’s pickup; Henderson drives. McKinney will claim that at some point during the ride Shepard places his hand on McKinney’s leg. It is then that McKinney strikes Shepard with a .357 Magnum pistol. However, McKinney later says, “I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway.” (In 1999, Henderson will admit that McKinney lied about the sexual advance from Shepard, and say that Shepard never touched either man. And tapes of McKinney’s post-arrest confession bear out Henderson’s denial.) McKinney tells Shepard: “Guess what? I’m not gay—and you just got jacked.” McKinney forces Shepard to give him his wallet, which only has $30 in it. McKinney continues pistol-whipping Shepard; prosecutors will say that McKinney continues beating Shepard because of his hatred for gays, but McKinney will later claim he loses control of himself because he is high on methamphetamine, saying: “Sometimes when you have that kind of rage going through you, there’s no stopping it. I’ve attacked my best friends coming off of meth binges.” McKinney and Henderson drive to a secluded spot outside Laramie where they can dump Shepard and flee. They stop at a wooden fence, where Henderson ties Shepard to the fence with a length of rope while McKinney continues to beat Shepard. Henderson later claims McKinney strikes him in the face when he tries to stop McKinney from continuing to assault Shepard. After tying Shepard to the fence, Henderson returns to the truck, leaving McKinney alone with Shepard. McKinney later says he believes it is his final blows to Shepard that ultimately kill him. (Leavitt 10/18/1998; Cullen 11/6/1999; ABC News 11/26/2004) Sergeant Rob DeBree, the chief investigator in the case, will later say, “That is one thousand percent torture, what occurred to that boy.” (Cullen 11/6/1999)
Altercation in Parking Lot Alerts Police to Murder - McKinney takes Shepard’s wallet and shoes, gets back in the truck, and tells Henderson to return to Laramie. McKinney later says his intention was to burglarize Shepard’s apartment. However, McKinney and Henderson meet up with two other young men whom police say are vandalizing cars; McKinney attacks the two men, attracting police attention. Police Sergeant Flint Waters runs down Henderson; after apprehending him, he sees several incriminating items in the bed of Henderson’s truck, including a bloodied large-frame revolver, a coat, a shoe, and a length of rope. Waters later says, “Seeing that the gun covered in blood, I assumed that there was a lot more going on than what we’d stumbled onto so far.” (ABC News 11/26/2004) The two assailants’ girlfriends attempt to cover for them, inventing an alibi for them and throwing Henderson’s bloodied clothing into a trash bin. McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, says of Henderson after the murder: “He was crying, and he kept throwing up. He just came in and hugged me, and said, ‘I’ve done something horrible. I deserve to die.’” (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Discovery - Aaron Kreifels, a fellow University of Wyoming student, finds Shepard by chance after struggling to get his mountain bike through the sandy, rugged terrain. He later tells a Denver Post reporter: “I got up and noticed something out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a scarecrow, so I didn’t think much of it. Then I went around and noticed it was a real person. I checked to see if he was conscious or not, and when I found out he wasn’t, I ran and got help as fast as I could.” Kreifels reaches a house in the nearby Sherman Hills subdivision and calls police. As to Shepard’s condition, he will say, “I don’t really want to go into details about that.” Of the two assailants, Kreifels will say: “I can’t even grasp what these people were thinking, how they could do such a thing. There’s no excuse for it. Whatever their excuse is, it’s meaningless, because there’s just no excuse for taking another’s life.” (Hughes 10/15/1988) McKinney’s girlfriend briefly attempts to blame Shepard for the attack, claiming Shepard had made a pass at her boyfriend in recent days, and embarrassed him in front of his friends. (Brooke 10/12/1998)
Father of Assailant: Gay Victim Caused Increased Media Coverage - The father of one of the assailants, Bill McKinney, condemns the attack, but also complains about the attention Shepard’s murder receives in the media. The national press “blew it totally out of proportion because it involved a homosexual,” McKinney tells a Denver reporter. “Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news.” (Brooke 10/12/1998)
Funeral - Anti-gay protesters will picket Shepard’s funeral, displaying signs such as “God Hates Fags” and “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell” (see October 14, 1998).
Hate Crime - The question of whether Shepard’s murder qualifies as a “hate crime” is hotly debated in the weeks following the murder (see October 9, 1998 and After).
Multiple Life Sentences - McKinney and Henderson are found guilty of murder, kidnapping, and, in McKinney’s case, aggravated robbery. They accept double life sentences, in a plea deal agreed to by Shepard’s family, in order to escape the possibility of a death sentence. They waive their right to appeal as part of their plea deal. “Bottom line, Aaron was afraid he was going to die,” DeBree later says. (Cullen 11/5/1999; Cullen 11/6/1999; ABC News 11/26/2004) Dennis Shepard, the father of the victim, speaks for the family in court. “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney,” he says. “However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt.… Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.” (Cullen 11/5/1999)
Triggers Legislation - Shepard’s death will be a catalyst for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (see October 28, 2009). Shepard’s mother will create a foundation in her son’s name dedicated to promoting tolerance and diversity. And Shepard’s story will be retold in documentaries, television movies, and a play called “The Laramie Project,” which will often be performed in schools to address the issues of hate and prejudice. (ABC News 11/26/2004)
President Barack Obama signs the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The new law authorizes the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute violent attacks in which the perpetrator has targeted a victim because of his or her actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The law is part of a larger defense authorization bill. “This law honors our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short because of hate,” says Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese. “Today’s signing of the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered] Americans represents a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality.” A statement released by 29 LGBT groups says, in part: “It took much too long, more than a decade. And it came at too great a price: the brutal killings of Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After) and James Byrd Jr. (see June 7, 1998 and After) are just two among the thousands of crimes motivated by hate and bigotry.… [L]awmakers and the president have made an imperative statement to the country and the world: Our nation will no longer tolerate hate-motivated violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.” The legislation has languished in Congress for nearly a decade, largely because of conservative opposition. Representative Mike Pence (R-IL), one of the harshest critics of the new law, accuses Obama of signing the bill as part of his “radical agenda” that puts his “liberal social priorities ahead of an unambiguous affirmation of our men and women in uniform.” Pence adds: “Every day, our armed forces stand in defense of freedom and our cherished way of life. It is deeply offensive to their service and to millions of Americans to pile so-called ‘hate crimes’ legislation onto a bill that authorizes critical resources for our troops. Hate crimes legislation is antithetical to the First Amendment, unnecessary, and will have a chilling effect on religious freedom.” (Fox News 10/28/2009; New England Bay Windows 10/28/2009) The law was included in the National Defense and Authorization Act of 2009 in part to weaken Republican opposition. Many Republicans such as Pence railed against the bill in both the House and Senate, but many voted for the legislation despite their opposition to the act. Many Republicans have criticized the placement of the law into the defense authorization legislation. Many conservative organizations, such as the Christian group Focus on the Family (FOTF), says the new law creates “thought crimes” by outlawing not just actions, but beliefs and attitudes. FOTF and Congressional Republicans such as Representative Steve King (R-IA) have also claimed that the new law legitimizes pedophilia and other illegal sexual practices, ignoring findings by legal and political analysts who called such claims “preposterous.” (St. Petersburg Times 5/14/2009; Boven 10/9/2009)
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