A Life For A Life

  • If the barbaric dragging death of James Byrd Jr. were a movie--and at times it seemed like pure John Grisham--this was the scene that would have been certain to make it into the trailers. As a scowling John William King, 24, was led out of the Jasper County courthouse in shackles by Texas Rangers last week, reporters asked him if he had any message for the grieving Byrd family. It was a moment when, just briefly, repentance appeared possible. "Yeah," King sneered. He then invited the Byrds to perform a lewd sexual act.

    There's a reason King's story feels like a legal thriller: its plot line is melodramatic and painfully one-dimensional. The murder of Byrd is as horrific a crime as can be imagined--chaining a man to a truck and dragging him three miles until he dies of his injuries. And the protagonist is a dime-store white supremacist, spouting anti-black and anti-Semitic dogma and spewing hatred to the bitter end. Last week a Jasper jury tacked a Hollywood ending onto King's life story, convicting him of first-degree murder and sentencing him to death by lethal injection.

    It was a more satisfying resolution than many blacks had dared expect. East Texas, with its dusty small towns and cotton fields, is more Dixie than Lone Star. And the South hasn't been a place where blacks always found justice in the courtroom. In towns like Jasper, not long ago, blacks--even black lawyers--were routinely called by their first name in court, often excluded as jurors, their testimony discounted again and again. Black life was so cheap that whites almost never got the death penalty for killing blacks. After Byrd's murder, King gloated to an accomplice that "we have made history." He may just be right. If his death penalty is carried out, he will be the first white Texan executed for killing a black since slavery ended.

    If ever a crime cried out for grave punishment, it's this one. King and two friends were driving a 1982 Ford pickup in the early-morning hours last June. They spotted Byrd, 49, an unemployed vacuum-cleaner salesman, walking home from a party on a lonely stretch of Highway 96 and offered him a ride. They drove him to a deserted corner of the backwoods and, after a struggle, chained him to the truck by his ankles. Then they dragged him for three miles along a rural road outside Jasper. Byrd was alive for the first two miles, a pathologist testified at trial, and deliberately twisted his body from side to side, trying to keep his head from hitting the pavement. He may have been conscious at the time of his death, when his head was finally torn off by a concrete drainage culvert. Lawmen later found Byrd's head and upper torso, including his right arm, shoulder and neck, in a ditch about a mile away from the rest of his body.

    Byrd's murder was a heinous crime against a man and his family, but it was also something larger. Lynching is the iconic Old South crime, used to punish slave insurrections. Lynch mobs traditionally hanged their victim from a rope tossed over a tree limb. But dragging deaths were not uncommon, first from horses, later from cars and trucks. Lynching was at once a brutal act of vigilante injustice and a larger statement--a warning to blacks to remain subservient.

    How does a child grow up to be John William King? Neither the nature nor the nurture crowd has an easy explanation. King was adopted as an infant into an apparently loving family, a brother to the Kings' two daughters. Ronald King's memories of his son's childhood are sweet. The elder King told the jury that he and his wife, who died shortly before her son's 16th birthday, "invested a lot of love in that boy."

    John King grew up among blacks and went to school with them. (The black jury foreman was a classmate at Jasper High School.) King's life took a bad turn after his junior year of high school, when he was arrested for burglary--along with Shawn Berry, one of the two men with him in the pickup last June. The two were sent to boot camp together. Upon release, however, King violated probation and was given an eight-year prison term in July 1995.

    King probably harbored some racist beliefs before he checked into Texas' 3,200-inmate, maximum-security Beto I unit. He already had a book on the Klan, stolen from his high school library. Michelle Chapman, 18, a friend, testified that she could see him becoming increasingly racist in the 10 letters he wrote her from prison between 1995 and 1997. His missives were full of vulgarities and racial slurs denouncing blacks, Jews, Hispanics and a variety of "race traitors." White women who date blacks are "whores," he said, and they should "hang from the same tree as their black boyfriends." At Beto, King shared a cell with Lawrence Brewer Jr., the third man in the pickup truck the night Byrd was killed.

    Prisons are a breeding ground for groups like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Aryan Circle. When the Texas prisons were desegregated in the early 1980s, whites and blacks were spread evenly throughout the prison system. Blacks, who were 60% of the inmate population, became a dominant force in many cellblocks. It "helped the white-supremacy groups recruit because whites were the minority and were becoming victims," says Sammy Buentello, head of the Texas department of criminal justice's gang-management office. A former state-prison psychologist testified at trial that an assault by black inmates may have played a critical role in King's racist conversion. "My understanding of what turned this person around is that he was attacked," Dr. Walter Quijano testified. "That traumatized him and changed him dramatically."

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