A Life For A Life

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King and Brewer joined a local prison chapter of a gang called the Confederate Knights of America, a small North Carolina-based Klan faction that recruited heavily from biker groups and prison inmates in the early 1990s. He began getting tattoos that would cover 65% of his body. His body art was a litany of racist images, including Nazi SS lightning bolts, Klan emblems and a black man lynched from a tree. One witness, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon, suggested the tattoos may have been a way to make the 5-ft. 7-in., 165-lb. King look forbidding to threatening black inmates. By standing up to blacks, another witness said, he became part of a group known as "peckerwoods," whites who would not yield money or sexual favors to blacks.

During his time in jail, prosecutors say, King was making plans to form a Jasper chapter of the Confederate Knights of America, to be called the Texas Rebel Soldiers. Brewer was King's first recruit, the government says, and Berry was the second. William Matthew Hoover, a fellow inmate of King's and an Aryan Brotherhood member, testified that King may have been planning an initiation ritual for his new gang that included kidnapping a black man, driving him to the woods and killing him. "They have to take someone out," Hoover testified. "Blood in, blood out. You have to spill blood to get in, and you have to give blood to get out."

Before King left prison, he wrote in Hoover's prison album, calling him "my Aryan brother in arms" and inviting him to a party on July 4, 1998, the day he planned to form the Texas Rebel Soldiers. "And don't forget," King wrote, "a huge Wood gathering, BBQ and bashing on July 4." Hoover explained that a "bashing" meant killing a black man. King was by now in the process of becoming a white-supremacy polemicist. In his prison writings, he cast himself as a hero in a coming race war with racial minorities and Jews. He drafted proposed bylaws and recruiting letters for his new Klan chapter and expounded on the Aryans, whom he considered to be a "race of individuals who have found themselves existing on humanity's evolutionary plateau," who were "born with genetic capacity for great power, leadership, and knowledge."

When King got out of prison in 1997, he got to work planning the Independence Day kickoff for his Texas Rebel Soldiers. He wanted something to call attention to the group, prosecutors say, and what he had in mind was a racial killing. As it turned out, opportunity--in the form of Byrd ambling along the highway--presented itself a few weeks before July 4. It seemed precisely the kind of dramatic action King had been working toward. King dragged his victim's severed torso through a black part of town and dumped it near a black church and cemetery. He wanted Byrd's death to fulfill the traditional function of a lynching. "It was designed to strike terror into the community," a government witness said.

Jasper, which calls itself the Jewel of the Forest, is not a frozen-in-time, bigoted Southern town. Although it is 60% white, Mayor R.C. Horn and other influential political figures are black. But the killing had the potential to reopen a lot of wounds and set whites against blacks. That calm reigned is in significant part because of the Byrd family, which preached harmony and refused to blame the entire white community for the acts of three men. King's father, for his part, apologized to the Byrds for the murder. "Please pray for the Byrd family, who have endured unimaginable pain and loss," he said. At one point, one of Byrd's daughters embraced a sorrowing Ronald King and whispered, "It's not your fault."

The early signs from the courtroom were encouraging. The government put on a powerful case--a far cry from the days when Southern prosecutors found ways to lose--or not to bring--race cases like this one. The defense presented only three witnesses; its entire case lasted less than an hour. Although the jury had 11 whites and just one black, corrections officer Joe Collins, the sole black, was elected foreman. Jasper's black community hoped for the best but braced for the worst. "Even if you know something is right and that you should get a certain verdict, sometimes you don't get it," says Unav Wade, owner of a beauty salon on the courthouse square. "If it's between races, most likely the white person wins."

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