Dragged to his death
The lynching of an innocent man shocked the world...
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.
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