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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).
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