HUNTSVILLE, Texas – A white supremacist gang member was executed Wednesday evening for the infamous dragging death slaying of a black man.
James Byrd Jr., 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.
Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, was asked if he had any final words, to which he replied: “No. I have no final statement.” A single tear hung on the edge of his right eye.
He was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m., 10 minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing into his arms, both covered with intricate black tattoos.
Brewer’s parents and two of Byrd’s sisters were in attendance.
Appeals to the courts for Brewer 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,” Billy Rowles, the retired sheriff who first investigated the horrific scene, said. “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 was among witnesses 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 horrible death her brother endured, “Knowing you’re going to be executed, that has to be a sobering thought,” she said.
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 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, 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 and stopped along an isolated logging road. A fight broke out and the outnumbered Byrd was tied to the truck bumper with a 24-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 which 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 back in Jasper.
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