Dragged to his death

The lynch­ing of an in­no­cent man shocked the world...

Chat - - CONTENTS -

At first, of­fi­cers thought it was a hi­tand-run

Two decades on, and it’s still one of the most hor­rific hate crimes in Amer­i­can his­tory.

The date was 7 June 1998. It was a Sun­day morn­ing, a time when most of the res­i­dents of Jasper, Texas, would be head­ing off to church.

Yet the po­lice made a grisly dis­cov­ery – the body parts of a man strewn across a coun­try road. Head, neck, arm, shoul­der and den­tures.

And his head­less torso had been dumped out­side a church about a mile away.

The victim was iden­ti­fied as James Byrd Jr, 49, an AfricanAme­r­i­can fa­ther-of-three.

At first, of­fi­cers thought he’d

been the victim of a hit-an­drun, un­til a bloody trail led the in­ves­ti­ga­tors along the road to a clear­ing in woods, where there’d clearly been a fight. They dis­cov­ered a but­ton from James’ cloth­ing, along with his base­ball cap.

They also found cig­a­rette butts, a lighter en­graved with KKK and the nick­name Pos­sum, and a wrench in­scribed with the name Berry.

James’ shocked friends and fam­ily de­scribed how he’d spent the pre­vi­ous evening drinking and so­cial­is­ing. He’d then left a party to walk home.

So how had he ended up dead, so hor­rif­i­cally mu­ti­lated?

A post­mortem re­vealed har­row­ing de­tails – it in­di­cated that his an­kles had been bound to­gether with a me­tal chain.

It be­came clear that James had been chained to the back of a ve­hi­cle and dragged along the road for al­most three miles.

His hor­rific death and dis­mem­ber­ment ap­peared to have been caused when he’d been flung into a jagged, con­crete road­side drainage ditch.

It had torn off his head and up­per body on im­pact.

The ve­hi­cle had con­tin­ued to drag the rest of his body along, be­fore it was dumped out­side the church, as­so­ci­ated mainly with the area’s AfricanAme­r­i­can com­mu­nity.

Truly sick­en­ing...and yet it was about to get worse.

Clues quickly led the po­lice to the doors of three white su­prem­a­cists.

There could only be one con­clu­sion.

James Byrd Jr had been hor­rif­i­cally mur­dered – be­cause of the colour of his skin.

The shock­ing case made news head­lines around the world.

Within a day, the po­lice had ar­rested a man named Shawn Berry, 23. Traf­fic of­fi­cers pulled him over in his grey pick-up truck – the same colour and model as the one in which James had last been seen. Underneath the truck, the po­lice found spat­ters of James’ blood, and they de­ter­mined that the tyres were iden­ti­cal to those that had left tracks at the scene. They also dis­cov­ered a tool set match­ing the wrench. Next to be ar­rested were Shawn Berry’s associates, Lawrence Brewer, 31, and John King, 23. All three were known crim­i­nals.

Old school friends King and Berry had pre­vi­ously com­mit­ted bur­glary to­gether. In prison a few years ear­lier, King had ac­quired the nick­name

Pos­sum, and be­friended his cell mate

Brewer – also a con­victed bur­glar.

While be­hind bars, King also met

in­mates in­volved in the Con­fed­er­ate Knights – a branch of the in­fa­mous white su­prem­a­cist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan.

He’d latched onto them and had even got vile tat­toos of Nazi sym­bols and the image of a black man be­ing hanged. In spring 1998, shortly af­ter King and Brewer left jail, Berry moved in with them in Jasper.

As the po­lice pieced to­gether the evidence, more grue­some de­tails emerged.

The trio had of­fered James a ride as he walked the three miles home from the party. They’d driven him to an iso­lated spot in the woods, beaten him, and sprayed black spray paint in his face. Then they’d wrapped a log­ging chain around his an­kles and dragged him to his hor­rific death… The killing harked back to a ter­ri­ble time in the late 19th cen­tury, when lynch­ings and race-re­lated killings were rife in the south­ern states of Amer­ica.

James’ killing sparked out­rage. Peo­ple were ut­terly shocked such crimes could hap­pen again.

In the end, all three men were tried sep­a­rately.

At John King’s trial, he was ac­cused of be­ing the ring­leader and in­sti­ga­tor.

The pros­e­cu­tors showed evidence of King’s ‘vi­o­lent ha­tred’ of black peo­ple.

Wit­nesses told how he’d boasted of plans to kid­nap and kill a black man.

His mo­ti­va­tion?

To pass a Con­fed­er­ate Knights gang-ini­ti­a­tion ritual, known as ‘blood tie’.

De­spite protest­ing his innocence, King was found guilty of cap­i­tal mur­der and handed a death sen­tence.

At his trial, Lawrence Brewer claimed that Berry had killed James Byrd Jr, by cut­ting his throat.

The pros­e­cu­tors said Brewer and King had planned to start a racist or­gan­i­sa­tion in Jasper and had ‘intended the killing to be a sig­nal’.

Brewer was also con­victed of cap­i­tal mur­der and sen­tenced to death.

Shawn Berry was the last to face a jury.

Pros­e­cu­tors told the court he’d joined the killing for the thrill, but didn’t share Brewer’s and King’s white­supremacis­t be­liefs.

He was con­victed of cap­i­tal mur­der, but jailed for life.

Such was the dis­gust over the killing that, in 2009, the US Congress passed The Matthew Shep­ard James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Act, signed by then-Pres­i­dent Obama.

Matthew was a 21-year-old gay stu­dent, mur­dered in Oc­to­ber 1998 be­cause of his sex­u­al­ity.

The Act was put in place in or­der to strengthen laws against hate crimes – those fu­elled by race, reli­gion, sex­u­al­ity, or any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In Septem­ber 2011, Lawrence Brewer was ex­e­cuted by lethal in­jec­tion.

Mean­while, John King con­tin­ued to protest his innocence, ap­peal­ing nu­mer­ous times.

But, af­ter be­ing de­nied a last-minute stay of ex­e­cu­tion, it was King’s turn to face the death cham­ber this April – nearly 21 years af­ter James Byrd’s bru­tal slay­ing. Be­fore John King, then 44, was ad­min­is­tered a lethal in­jec­tion at Texas State Pen­i­ten­tiary, he de­clined to give a fi­nal state­ment.

With­out open­ing his eyes, he took ‘one deep breath’ and ‘one exhale’. Then, 12 min­utes af­ter the lethal dose was given, he was de­clared dead.

James Byrd’s death is a shock­ing stain on Amer­ica’s his­tory – es­pe­cially in Texas.

Shawn Berry re­mains in prison, and will be eligible for pa­role in 2038.

The killing harked back to a ter­ri­ble time in US his­tory

The truck used that dread­ful night…

King is ar­rested – he had vile, racist tat­toos

Victim: James Byrd Jr

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