John William King was 24 years old when he and two friends committed one of the grisliest crimes in modern American history.
Barring a last-minute stay, King, 44, will on Wednesday become the second person to be executed for the murder of James Byrd Jr. of Jasper, Texas.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1998, three white men, King, Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Berry, offered Byrd a ride. Instead, they drove him to a secluded area where they beat him and spray-painted his face before tying a logging chain around his ankles, attaching it to the back of the truck and dragging him down a secluded road in the woods for about 5 kilometers.
No motive presented
Officials said Byrd was alive for at least the first 3 kilometers before his body was torn apart. His naked body was left near a black church just outside Jasper. The rest of his body was found about 2 kilometers away, court records show.
He had been decapitated and dismembered during the drive.
“Byrd’s death and dismemberment were caused, according to the pathologist, when he was slung into a culvert on the side of the road,” according to the records.
During an investigation, police found a lighter engraved with Ku Klux Klan initials and the world “Possum,” cigarette butts, a button from Byrd’s shirt, Byrd’s baseball cap and a wrench inscribed with the name “Berry.” They also found traces of Byrd’s blood under Berry’s truck.
The cigarette butts held King’s DNA, and police learned King’s nickname was Possum.
While no motive was presented during the trials, prosecutors have repeatedly pointed to racism as the reason for the crime.
Three men convicted
All three men — King, Brewer and Berry — were convicted of capital murder. King and Brewer were sentenced to death and Berry received a sentence of life in prison.
Brewer was executed in 2011.
In the years since the dragging, Byrd’s family has established the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. His sister, Louvon Byrd Harris, 61, said her family still hopes to build a multicultural center and museum in Jasper to promote diversity and education.
Considered one of the most gruesome crimes in U.S. history, it shocked not only local residents, but the nation. It also brought about hate crime legislation in Texas and the U.S. Congress.
Hate Crimes Prevention Act
One such law was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. Shepard was a gay student in Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left for dead in October 1998. He died of his wounds six days after he was attacked.
According to the Justice Department, the law has been used to indict 88 defendants in 42 hate crimes cases, with 64 convictions, as of last summer.