The Murder of James Byrd, Jr.
Jasper, Texas
   
 
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James Byrd Jr. (May 2, 1949 – June 7, 1998) was a black man who was murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King dragged Byrd for three miles behind a pick-up truck along an asphalt road. Byrd, who remained conscious throughout most of his ordeal, was killed about halfway through the dragging when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another mile and a half (2.4 km) before dumping his torso in front of a black cemetery in Jasper. Byrd's lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate-crimes law. It later led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, which passed on October 22, 2009, and which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.

No clear motive for the crime has been named. King, who prior to the murder of Byrd, had recently been released from a Texas prison, has claimed that he had been repeatedly gang-raped in prison by black inmates. Berry and Brewer had also spent prior time in prison.

Brewer was executed by lethal injection for this crime by the state of Texas on September 21, 2011. King remains on death row with an execution date of April 24, 2019. Berry was sentenced to life imprisonment and will be eligible for parole in 2038.

Victim

James Byrd Jr. was born on May 2, 1949, in Beaumont, Texas, one of nine children, to Stella (1925 – October 6, 2010) and James Byrd Sr. (born 1924).[12]

Ross Byrd, the only son of James Byrd Jr., has been involved with "Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation",[13] an organization that opposes capital punishment. He has campaigned to spare the lives of those who murdered his father and appears briefly in the documentary Deadline.[14][15]

Murder

On June 7, 1998, Byrd, age 49, accepted a ride from Shawn Berry (age 23), Lawrence Russell Brewer (age 31), and John King (age 23). Berry, who was driving, was acquainted with Byrd from around town. Instead of taking Byrd home, the three men took Byrd to a remote county road out of town, beat him severely, urinated and defecated on him, and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for about 3 miles (4.8 km). Brewer later claimed that Byrd's throat had been slashed by Berry before he was dragged. However, forensic evidence suggests that Byrd had been attempting to keep his head up while being dragged, and an autopsy suggested that Byrd was alive during much of the dragging. Byrd died about halfway along the route of his dragging after his right arm and head were severed when his body hit a culvert.[2] Byrd's brain and skull were found intact, further suggesting he maintained consciousness while being dragged.[16]

Berry, Brewer, and King dumped the mutilated remains of the body in front of an African-American church on Huff Creek Road, then drove off to a barbecue.[17] A motorist found Byrd's decapitated remains the following morning.[18] Along the area where Byrd was dragged, police found a wrench with "Berry" written on it. They also found a lighter that was inscribed with "Possum", which was King's prison nickname.[17] The police found 81 places that were littered with Byrd's remains.[17] "State law enforcement officials, along with Jasper's district attorney, determined that since Brewer and King were well-known white supremacists, the murder was ... a hate crime".[5] They called upon the Federal Bureau of Investigation less than 24 hours after the discovery of Byrd's remains.[citation needed] The special agent in charge of the FBI's Houston office said that they were assisting because of the case's "extreme circumstances".[19]

King had several racist tattoos: a black man hanging from a tree, Nazi symbols, the words "Aryan Pride", and the patch for a gang of white supremacist inmates known as the Confederate Knights of America.[20] In a jailhouse letter to Brewer that was intercepted by jail officials, King expressed pride in the crime and said that he realized while committing the murder that he might have to die. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!" King wrote.[2] An officer investigating the case also testified that witnesses said that King had referenced The Turner Diaries after beating Byrd.[21]

Berry, Brewer, and King were tried and convicted for Byrd's murder. Brewer and King received the death penalty, while Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Brewer was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011,[6] while King remains on Texas' death row awaiting an April 24, 2019 execution date.[7][8][9][22]

Perpetrators

The perpetrators were held at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit.
Huntsville Unit, where Brewer was executed.

Shawn Allen Berry

Shawn Allen Berry (born February 12, 1975) claimed that Brewer and King were entirely responsible for the crime. Brewer, however, testified that Berry had cut Byrd's throat before he was tied to the truck. The jury decided that little evidence supported this claim.[23] As a result, Berry was spared the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. As of 2008, Berry was living in protective custody at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Ramsey Unit,[9] and will be first eligible for parole when he is 63 years old in June 2038.[24] He spends 23 hours per day in an 8-by-6-foot (2.4 by 1.8 m) cell, with 1 hour for exercise. Berry married Christie Marcontell by proxy.[25] Marcontell was Berry's girlfriend at the time of the murder. They have two children together.

Lawrence Russell Brewer

Lawrence Russell Brewer (March 13, 1967 – September 21, 2011) was a white supremacist, who prior to Byrd's murder, had served a prison sentence for drug possession and burglary. He was paroled in 1991. After violating his parole conditions in 1994, Brewer was returned to prison. According to his court testimony, he joined a white supremacist gang with King in prison to safeguard himself from other inmates.[26] Brewer and King became friends in the Beto Unit prison.[9] A psychiatrist testified that Brewer did not appear repentant for his crimes. Brewer was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.[27] Brewer, TDCJ#999327,[28] was on death row at the Polunsky Unit,[9] but was executed in the Huntsville Unit on September 21, 2011.[29] The day before his execution, Brewer expressed no remorse for his crime, as he told KHOU 11 News in Houston: "As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I'd do it all over again, to tell you the truth."[30]

Before his execution, Brewer ordered a last meal that included two chicken-fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fully loaded fajitas; a meat-lover's pizza; one pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers. When the meal was presented, he told officials he was not hungry and did not eat any of it. The meal was discarded, prompting State Senator John Whitmire to ask Texas prison officials to end the 87-year-old tradition of giving last meals to condemned inmates. The prison agency's executive director responded that the practice had been terminated effective immediately.[31]

John William King

John William King (born November 3, 1974) was Berry's longtime friend.[5] He was accused of beating Byrd with a bat and then dragging him behind a pickup truck until he died. King, who prior to the murder had recently been released from a Texas prison, said that he had been repeatedly gang raped in prison by black inmates.[4] He was found guilty and sentenced to death for his role in Byrd's kidnapping and murder.[7] King remains on death row at the Polunsky Unit.[9] On December 21, 2018, King's execution by lethal injection was scheduled for Wednesday, April 24, 2019.[10]

Reactions to the murder

Numerous aspects of the Byrd murder echo lynching traditions. These include mutilation or decapitation and revelry, such as a barbecue or a picnic, either during or after a lynching. Byrd's murder was strongly condemned by Jesse Jackson and the Martin Luther King Center as an act of vicious racism[32] and it focused national attention on the prevalence of white supremacist prison gangs.

The victim's family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing after his death. Basketball star Dennis Rodman paid their funeral expenses and gave Byrd's family $25,000. Fight promoter Don King gave Byrd's children $100,000 to be put towards their education expenses.[33]

In 1999, Chantal Akerman, inspired by the literary works of William Faulkner, set out to make a film about the beauty of the American South. However, after arriving on location (in Jasper, Texas) and learning of the brutal racist murder, she changed her focus. Akerman made Sud (French for "South"), a meditation on the events surrounding the crime and the history of racial violence in the United States. In 2003, a movie about the crime, titled Jasper, Texas, was produced and aired on Showtime. The same year, a documentary named Two Towns of Jasper, made by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, premiered on PBS's P.O.V. series.[34]

While at radio station WARW in Washington, DC, DJ Doug Tracht (also known as "The Greaseman") made a derogatory comment referring to James Byrd after playing Lauryn Hill's song "Doo Wop (That Thing)".[35] The February 1999 incident proved catastrophic to Tracht's radio career, igniting protests from black and white listeners, alike. He was quickly fired from WARW and lost his position as a volunteer deputy sheriff in Falls Church, Virginia.

In May 2004, two white men were arrested and charged with criminal mischief for desecrating James Byrd Jr.'s grave with racial slurs and profanities.[36]

Impact on US politics[edit]

Some advocacy groups, such as the NAACP National Voter Fund, made an issue of this case during George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000. They accused Bush of implicit racism, since as governor of Texas, he opposed hate-crime legislation. Also, citing a prior commitment, Bush could not appear at Byrd's funeral. Because two of the three murderers were sentenced to death and the third to life in prison (all charged with and convicted of capital murder, the highest felony level in Texas), Governor Bush maintained, "we don't need tougher laws". The 77th Texas Legislature passed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. With the signature of Governor Rick Perry, who inherited the balance of Bush's unexpired term, the act became Texas state law in 2001.[37] In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.[38]

Musical and poetry tributes[edit]

On the 2001 album Pieces of Me by singer/songwriter Lori McKenna, the song "Pink Sweater" is dedicated to Byrd[39] and condemns his murderers and references their death-penalty convictions with the raucous refrain, "I'll be the one in the pink sweater, dancing around when you're gone." In 2010, Alabama musician Matthew Mayfield penned, recorded, and released a song in Byrd's honor. The tune, titled "Still Alive", is the fourth track on Mayfield's EP You're Not Home. "Still Alive" clearly related a stark bitterness towards racism and equated such hate crimes to genocide. "Tell Me Why", featuring Mary J. Blige, mentions Byrd on Will Smith's fourth album, Lost and Found.[40] Houston rapper E.S.G. mentions Byrd on the song "Realest Rhymin'" from his 1999 album Shinin' N' Grindin',[40] stating "... let the Klu Klux know that I'mma blast ya/heard how ya done James Byrd down up in Jasper." Byrd's son Ross recorded the rap album Undeniable Resurrection and dedicated it to his father.[41]

"The New Hell" by death metal band The Famine mentions Byrd on their album The Architects of Guilt (2011).[40] "Jasper", by Confrontation Camp, is the fifth track on the album Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (2000).[42] "Guitar Drag" by sound artist Christian Marclay is a video- and sound-installation about the murder of James Byrd (2000).[43] "I Heard 'Em Say" by Ryan Bingham is about Byrd's murder and the racially charged climate around Jasper following the crime (2012).[40] "The Southern Thing" on the Drive-By Truckers' album Southern Rock Opera mentions the incident, saying "Hate's the only thing that my truck would want to drag".[44]

Houston rap group Geto Boys reference the murder in the song "Eye 4 an Eye" from their 1998 album Da Good da Bad & da Ugly.[45]

Byrd's murder is the subject of poet laureate Lucille Clifton's piece "jasper texas 1998" [46] as well as Jeffrey Thomson's piece "Achilles in Jasper, Texas".[47]

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