White Supremacist Sentenced To Death For Dragging Death Of Black Man

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas — A white supremacist gang member was sentenced to the death penalty Wednesday for the infamous dragging death 13 years ago of James Byrd Jr., a Black man from Jasper in East Texas.

Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and pulled whip-like to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in one of the most grisly hate crime murders in recent Texas history.

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Appeals to the courts for inmate Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, were exhausted and no last-day attempts to save his life were filed.

Besides Brewer, John William King, now 36, also was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row for Byrd’s death, which shocked the nation for its brutality. King’s conviction and death sentence remain under appeal. A third man, Shawn Berry, 36, received a life prison term.

“One down and one to go,” said Billy Rowles, the retired Jasper County sheriff who first investigated the horrific scene. “That’s kind of cruel, but that’s reality.”

Byrd’s sister, Clara Taylor, said someone from her brother’s family needed to be present to watch Brewer die so she planned to be in the death chamber.

“He had choices,” she said Tuesday, referring to Brewer. “He made the wrong choices.”

While the lethal injection wouldn’t compare to the death her brother endured, she said, “knowing you’re going to be executed, that has to be a sobering thought.”

It was about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday, June 7, 1998, when witnesses saw Byrd walking on a road not far from his home in Jasper, a town of more than 7,000 about 125 miles northeast of Houston. Many folks knew he lived off disability checks, couldn’t afford his own car and walked where he needed to go. Another witness then saw him riding in the bed of a dark pickup.

Six hours later and some 10 miles away on Huff Creek Road, the bloody mess found after daybreak was thought at first to be animal road kill. Rowles, a former Texas state trooper who had taken office as sheriff the previous year, believed it was a hit-and-run fatality but evidence didn’t match up with someone caught beneath a vehicle. Body parts were scattered and the blood trail began with footprints at what appeared to be the scene of a scuffle.

“I didn’t go down that road too far before I knew this was going to be a bad deal,” he said at Brewer’s trial.

Fingerprints taken from the headless torso identified the victim as Byrd.

Testimony showed the three men and Byrd drove out into the county about 10 miles and stopped along an isolated logging road. A fight broke out and the outnumbered Byrd was tied to the truck bumper with a 24½-foot logging chain. Three miles later, what was left of his shredded remains was dumped between a black church and cemetery where the pavement ended on the remote road.

Brewer, King and Berry were in custody by the end of the next day.

The crime put Jasper under a national spotlight and lured the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, among others, to try to exploit the notoriety of the case. Byrd’s killing continues — many say unfairly — to brand Jasper more than a decade later.

King was tried first, in Jasper. Brewer’s trial was moved 150 miles away to Bryan. Berry was tried in Jasper.

Brewer, from Sulphur Springs, about 180 miles to the northwest, had been convicted of cocaine possession. He met King, a convicted burglar from Jasper, in a Texas prison where they got involved in a KKK splinter group known as the Confederate Knights of America and adorned themselves with racist tattoos. Evidence showed Brewer had violated parole and was involved in a number of burglaries and thefts in the Jasper area.

King had become friends with Berry and moved into Berry’s place. Evidence showed Brewer came to Jasper to stay with King and Berry after losing a job because he lied about his criminal past on an application.

Membership in the white supremacist group, in which Brewer was known as “exalted cyclops,” was necessary in prison to ward off attacks from black inmates, Brewer said.

At his trial, Brewer blamed Byrd’s death on Berry, and said the slaying climaxed a fight between Byrd and King.

“I had no intentions of killing nobody,” Brewer testified. “If I knew the results, I would have gone to the cops.”

DNA evidence showed Byrd’s blood on all three men’s clothing.

Rowles and Guy James Gray, the former county district attorney who prosecuted the trio, visited with Brewer a few weeks ago at death row “to kind of see if he had a change of heart or was still the same,” Gray said.

“He didn’t show any kind of remorse,” Rowles said. “He said he wasn’t the one to put (Byrd) on the chain. He was there. He still contends as he did on the witness stand that Berry cut Byrd’s throat and killed him before he was chained. But that just wasn’t so. He pretty much stayed with what he testified.

“It was so nonchalant. It was unreal.”

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