James Byrd, Jr.

James Byrd, Jr. (May 2, 1949 - June 7, 1998) was an African-American murdered in 1998 by Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King, in Jasper, Texas.

The Murder

On June 7, 1998, Byrd, 49, accepted a ride from three drunk men named Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King. He had already known one of them. Instead of taking him home, the three men beat Byrd behind a convenience store, chained him by the ankles to their pickup truck, stripped the man naked, and dragged him for three miles. Although Lawrence Russell Brewer claimed that Byrd's throat had been slashed before he was dragged, forensic evidence suggests that Byrd had been attempting to keep his head up, and an autopsy suggested that Byrd was alive for much of the dragging and died after his right arm and head were severed when his body hit a culvert. His body had caught a sewage drain on the side of the road resulting in Byrd's decapitation. " [http://www.cnn.com/US/9902/22/dragging.death.03/ Closing arguments today in Texas dragging-death trial] ," "CNN", February 22, 1999] .

King, Berry, and Brewer dumped their victim's mutilated remains in the town's black cemetery, and then went to a barbecue. A wrench inscribed with "Berry" was found within the area along with a lighter that had "Possum" written on it, which was King's prison nickname. [" [http://web.archive.org/web/20051227000441/http://www.texasobserver.org/showArticle.asp?ArticleID=275 Justice in Jasper] ," "Texas Observer", September 17, 1999] .

The next morning, Byrd's limbs were scattered across a very little-used road. The police found 75 places littered with Byrd's remains. State law enforcement officials along with Jasper’s District Attorney Guy James Gray and Assistant Pat Hardy determined that since King and Brewer were well-known white supremacists, the murder was a hate crime, and decided to bring in the FBI less than 24 hours after the discovery of Byrd’s remains. One of Byrd's murderers, John King, had a tattoo depicting a black man hanging from a tree, and other tattoos such as Nazi symbols, the words "Aryan Pride," and the patch for the Confederate Knights of America, a gang of white supremacist inmates. [" [http://www.cnn.com/US/9902/16/dragging.death.04/index.html Texas sheriff 'knew somebody was murdered because he was black'] ," "CNN", February 16, 1999] In a jailhouse letter to Brewer which was intercepted by jail officials, King expressed pride in the crime and said he realized he might have to die for committing it. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!", King wrote.

Brewer and King were sentenced to death. Berry received life in prison.

Numerous aspects of the Byrd murder echo lynching traditions, including mutilation or decapitation, and revelry, such as a barbecue or a picnic, during or after.

The Perpetrators

John King - accused of beating Byrd with a bat and then dragging him behind a truck until he died. King had previously claimed to have been gang-raped in prison by black prisonerscite web | title="Justice Fellowship"| work="Prison Rape - It's No Joke" | url=http://www.justicefellowship.org/article.asp?ID=2695 | accessdate=February 9 | accessyear=2007] and, although he had no previous record of racism, had joined a white-supremacist prison gang, allegedly for self-protection. The testimony phase of his trial started in Jasper, Texas on February 16, 1999. He was found guilty of kidnapping and murder on February 23 and was sentenced to death on February 25.

Lawrence Russell Brewer - another white supremacist convicted of murdering Byrd. Prior to the Byrd murder, Brewer had served a prison sentence for drug possession and burglary, and he was paroled in 1991. After violating the parole in 1994, he was sent back to prison. According to his court testimony, he joined a white supremacist gang with King in order to safeguard himself from other prisoners.cite web | title="Court TV Online"| url=http://www.courttv.com/archive/trials/brewer/092199_pm_ctv.html| accessdate=June 19 | accessyear=2007] A state psychiatrist testified that Brewer did not appear repentant for his crimes. In the end, Brewer was also sentenced to death.

Shawn Allen Berry - The driver of the truck, Berry was the most difficult to convict of the three defendants because there was a lack of evidence to suggest that he himself was a racist. He had also claimed that his two companions were entirely responsible for the crime. Brewer testified that it was Berry who cut Byrd's throat before he was tied to the truck, but the jury decided that there was little evidence to indicate this.cite web |title="Texas NAACP| url=http://www.texasnaacp.org/jasper.htm | accessdate=June 19 | accessyear=2007] As a result, Berry was spared the death penalty and given a life sentence in prison.

Reactions to the murder

Byrd's murder was strongly condemned by Jesse Jackson and the Martin Luther King Center as an act of vicious racism and focused national attention on the prevalence of white supremacist prison gangs. Two of the three defendants, who were later tried and convicted for the murder, had allegedly joined such gangs while imprisoned in Texas.

The victim's family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing after his death. In 2003, a movie about the crime, called "Jasper, Texas", was produced and shown on Showtime. The same year, a documentary called [http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2002/twotownsofjasper/index.html "Two Towns of Jasper"] , made by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, premiered on PBS's [http://www.pbs.org/pov/ P.O.V. series] .

Basketball star Dennis Rodman offered to pay for Byrd's funeral. Although Byrd's family declined this offer, they accepted a $25,000 donation by Rodman to a fund started to support Byrd's family.

While at the CBS-owned WARW radio station in Washington, D.C., DJ Doug Tracht (AKA The Greaseman) made a derogatory comment about James Byrd after playing Lauryn Hill's song "Doo Wop (That Thing)" [ "THE RELIABLE SOURCE" Annie Groer, Ann Gerhart. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: Mar 18, 1999. pg. C.03] . The February 1999 incident proved catastrophic to his radio career, igniting protests from black and white listeners alike. Tracht was quickly fired from WARW and lost his position as a volunteer deputy sheriff in Falls Church, Virginia.

A campaign issue

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 him of implicit racism, since as governor, he opposed special hate crime legislation and, citing a prior commitment, Bush declined to appear at Byrd's funeral. Because two of the three murderers were sentenced to death and the third to a life term in prison (all charged with and convicted of capital murder, the highest felony level in Texas), Governor Bush maintained that "we don't need "tougher" laws."

After Governor Rick Perry inherited the rest of George W. Bush's unexpired term, the 77th Texas Legislature passed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act on May 11, 2001.


Ross Byrd, the only son of James, has been involved with the organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, an anti-death penalty group. He has campaigned to spare the life of those who murdered his father and appears briefly in the documentary Deadline About The Death Penalty in Illinois.

See also

*Dragging death


Further reading

*King, Joyce. "Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas." Pantheon, 2002.
*Temple-Raston, Dina. "A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder and a Small Town's Struggle for Redemption." Henry Holt and Co., January 6, 2002.

External links

* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7105192 James Byrd Jr] at findagrave
* [http://www.texasnaacp.org/jasper.htm Texas NAACP, James Byrd Jr] at texasnaacp.org
* [http://www.cnn.com/US/9902/18/dragging.death.03/index.html cnn.com] Co-defendant Shawn Berry led police to the chain used to drag James Byrd Jr to death
* [http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/special/jasper/ Jasper, Texas] - "Houston Chronicle" feature coverage of the murder
* [http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6422562666228591700&q=innerviews InnerVIEWS with Ernie Manouse: Stella Byrd] television interview with Byrd's mother
* [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335185 Jasper, Texas] television movie
* [http://capmag.com/article.asp?ID=1464 Politically Correct Murder and Media Bias] by Larry Elder, compares media coverage of the Byrd case to the murder of Ken Tillery
* [http://www.courttv.com/archive/trials/brewer/092199_pm_ctv.html Court TV Online]
* [http://www.texasnaacp.org/jasper.htm Texas NAACP]
* [http://www.gwu.edu/~action/ads2/adnaacp.html NAACP National Voter Fund - Campaign ads 2000]

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