John William King, 44, was executed by lethal injection on 24 April 2019 in Huntsville, Texas for the abduction and murder of a hitchhiker.
In the early morning of Sunday, 7 June 1998, James Byrd Jr., 49, was at a party in Jasper, in east Texas. Wanting to leave and unable to find a ride, he began walking down the road towards home, which was about a mile from the party. At the same time, King, then 23, and Lawrence Brewer, 31, were riding in a truck driven by Shawn Berry, 23. The men spotted Byrd and offered him a ride, which he accepted. Witnesses later testified seeing Byrd, who was black, riding in the bed of an old-model, step-side, primer-gray pickup truck with three white people in the cab.
The men drove to an isolated logging road, stopped the vehicle, and got out. They then attacked Byrd, tied his feet with a logging chain, and attached the chain to the back of the truck. They then drove along Huff Creek Road, dragging Byrd behind the truck until he was dead. They left Byrd's body on the road in front of a church attended by black residents. The body was found by townsfolk later that morning. It was missing the head, neck, and right arm.
Police followed a trail of blood, drag marks, and body parts for about a mile and a half, culminating in an area of matted-down grass that appeared to have been the scene of a struggle. At this site and all along the asphalt road ending in front of the church, police discovered clothing and personal items belonging to Byrd, including his wallet, keys, and dentures. They also found items apparently belonging to others, including a cigarette lighter engraved with the words "Possum" and "KKK," a nut driver inscribed with the name "Berry," three cigarette butts, a pack of cigarettes, and beer bottles.
The next evening, police stopped Berry for a traffic violation in his primer-gray 1982 Ford pickup. Behind the front seat, police discovered a set of tools matching the wrench found at the fight scene. Berry was arrested. Byrd's blood was found underneath the truck and on the tires. Police also noticed a rust stain in the bed of the pickup that was in the pattern and outline of a large chain.
At Berry's apartment, which he shared with Brewer and King, police and FBI agents found items of clothing stained with Byrd's blood belonging to all three men. The physical evidence incriminating King included a pair of blood-stained sandals found in his room, under his dresser. DNA tests on the three cigarette butts found at the crime scene established Berry, Brewer, and King as the major DNA contributors. In the woods where the three suspects were known to play paintball, police found a covered hole containing a 24-foot logging chain that matched the rust pattern in the bed of Berry's pickup.
Investigators also found a large amount of racial pamphlets and paraphernalia. Many of the elements found in the drawings and writings taken from the men's apartment were also present in the many tattoos on King's body. His tattoos included a woodpecker in a Ku Klux Klansman's robe making an obscene gesture; a patch incorporating "KKK," a swastika, and "Aryan Pride"; and a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree.
Byrd's murder stunned the nation and made the name Jasper synonymous with racist hate. Various state and federal "hate crime" laws were enacted around the country soon afterward. These laws typically call for harsher punishments for crimes motivated from racial hatred or certain other kinds of hatred.
King neither confessed to police nor testified at his trial. He did, however, state his version of events in a letter he wrote to the Dallas Morning News, and the prosecution entered this letter into evidence. In the letter, King claimed that he and Brewer were riding as Berry's passengers in Berry's pickup in the early morning hours of the killing. He wrote that they were looking for a woman's house, but were having difficulty finding it. Through "frivolous anger and fun at first," Berry began knocking over mailboxes and stop signs with his truck. When Berry's frustration at not being able to find the woman's home escalated, he stopped his truck, wrapped a chain around a mailbox post, uprooted the mailbox, and dragged it down the highway. Then, at King and Brewer's insistence, he agreed to take them home. On the way, they passed by a black man walking down the road - a man who Berry "recognized and identified as simply Byrd." Berry stated, according to King, that Byrd supplied him with steroids. He stopped and picked him up, as they "had business to discuss later." Byrd then climbed into the back of the truck.
Next, King's letter continues, Berry asked Brewer for money to buy steroids, and Brewer gave it to him. Byrd then moved into the cab of the pickup, while King and Brewer moved to the back. Berry dropped King and Brewer at the apartment then left with Byrd, informing King and Brewer that he was going to a party. King subsequently realized he left his wallet and cigarettes in Berry's pickup. He took a cooler full of beers to Berry at the party and retrieved his wallet, but couldn't find his cigarettes. He then returned to his apartment, called an ex-girlfriend, and went to bed.
King also claimed in this letter that he misplaced his cigarette lighter "a week or so prior to these fraudulent charges that have been brought against Russell Brewer and me."
A note King wrote to Brewer while in jail was also entered into evidence. It read, in part, "As far as the clothes I had on, I don't think any blood was on my pants or sweat shirt, but I think my sandals may have had some dark brown substance on the bottom of them." This note closed with, "regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history and shall die proudly remembered if need be ... Much Aryan love, respect, and honor, my brother in arms ... Possum."
A pathologist testified that Byrd was still alive until he was dragged across a culvert, and that is when his head and arm were severed from the rest of his body. He testified that the patterns of abrasions on Byrd's body indicated that he was conscious while being dragged and was trying to relieve some of the pain by rolling. The absence of injuries to his skull while being dragged by his ankles suggested that he was holding his head up, which again means that he was alive and conscious.
The prosecution asserted that certain evidence, such as King's and Byrd's DNA being found on the same cigarette butt, and Byrd's blood found on King's sandals, established King's presence at the crime scene and his involvement in his murder. Furthermore, two witnesses testified that King had his "Possum"-engraved lighter the day before the murder.
Tommy Faulk, a mutual friend of King and Brewer, owned the property next to the woods where the chain was found. He testified that on the day Byrd's body was found, King and Brewer appeared unannounced at his house. They came in Berry's truck and parked on the side of the house facing the woods. They stayed for a brief time and then left.
The defense argued against the kidnapping element of the capital murder charge, claiming that Byrd joined the men in the pickup voluntarily, and it was only upon reaching the field where the struggle occurred that he was restrained and prevented from leaving. This, they claimed, did not meet the statutory definition of kidnapping. The courts disagreed. In her opinion, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Sharon Keller wrote, "the act of chaining Byrd to the truck and dragging him for a mile and a half was, by itself, a kidnapping under the law."
King and Brewer had met in prison, where they were both members of the Confederate Knights of America, a white supremacist prison gang affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. At King's trial, prosecutors asserted that King, whose prison name was "Possum", planned to start a white supremacist group in Jasper. Byrd's killing, followed by the public display of his body, were intended as a signal to the community that the group was up and running.
An affidavit taken from Shawn Berry was not used as evidence at King or Brewer's trials, but it gave his version of events. Berry stated that he saw Byrd, who he recognized but did not know, hitchhiking, and offered him a ride in the back of the pickup. This made King angry. After the group stopped at a convenience store, King took the wheel. He stated he was "fixin' to scare the s___ out of this n____" and drove down a dirt road. King then stopped the truck, and he and Brewer began beating Byrd for no apparent reason. Berry said Byrd looked like he was unconscious, and he got back in the truck. While King was driving back into town, he looked behind the pickup and said, "That _____'s bouncing all over the place." Berry said he thought Byrd had been left in the field and was unaware King and Brewer had chained him to the pickup. When Berry protested that he wanted to be let out of the pickup, King said, "You're just as guilty as we are. Besides, the same thing could happen to a n_____ lover."
Another piece of evidence introduced by the state were the following words scratched into the walls of King's cell: "Shawn Berry is a snitch ass traitor."
King had a previous conviction for burglary. He served 5 years of a 10-year prison sentence from 1992 to 1997, when he was paroled.
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