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Crime & Justice

Texas Executes John William King In Racist Dragging Death Of James Byrd Jr.

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Illustration by Brandon Formby
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The Texas Tribune
John William King (right) was convicted in the murder of James Byrd Jr. The state plans to execute him Wednesday night.

It’s been more than two decades since an infamous hate crime in East Texas, where three white men were convicted of chaining a black man to the back of a pickup truck, dragging him for miles and then dumping the remains of his body in front of a church.

On Wednesday evening, John William King, 44, became the second and final man to be executed in the 1998 murder case of James Byrd Jr. Lawrence Brewer was put to death in 2011 for the crime, and Shawn Berry is serving a life sentence.

King had previously been involved in a white supremacist prison gang, and he was notoriously covered in racist tattoos, including Ku Klux Klan symbols, a swastika and a visual depiction of a lynching, according to court documents. But King maintained that he was innocent in Byrd’s murder — claiming that Berry dropped him and Brewer off at their shared apartment before Byrd was beaten and dragged to death.

In a last-minute appeal, King’s attorney argued that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling entitled his client to a new trial because his original lawyers didn’t assert his claim of innocence to the jury despite King’s insistence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals narrowly rejected this appeal in a 5-4 ruling Monday, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against stopping the execution about 30 minutes after it was scheduled to begin Wednesday.

After the ruling, King was taken from a holding cell and placed on a gurney in the death chamber and hooked up to an IV. He had no personal witnesses at his execution and spoke no final words, but he did provide a written statement beforehand, stating "Capital Punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment."

He was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 6:56 p.m., and pronounced dead 12 minutes later, according to the prison department.

Two of Byrd’s sisters and his niece planned to watch King's death. One of the sisters, who also watched Brewer's execution in 2011, told The Texas Tribune Tuesday thatshe didn’t understand why King’s case was tied up for so long with numerous appeals. He was sentenced to death in February 1999.

“He wants to find a way not to die, but he didn’t give James that chance,” said Louvon Harris. “He’s still getting off easy because your body’s not going to be flying behind a pickup truck being pulled apart.”

Byrd’s brutal murder drew a spotlight on the small town of Jasper and violent racism in the modern world. Evidence at trial showed police found most of the 49-year-old’s body on June 7, 1998, with three miles of blood, drag marks, and other body parts — including his head — on the road behind it. At the beginning of the gruesome trail, police found evidence of a fight, Byrd’s hat and cigarette butts later tied to King, Berry and Brewer, according to court documents. The three men were arrested shortly afterward.

Though King didn’t give an official statement to police or testify at his trial, he wrote a letter to The Dallas Morning News while awaiting trial proclaiming his innocence, saying Berry knew Byrd from jail and stopped the truck to pick him up after seeing Byrd walking down the road. King told The News that Berry then dropped him and Brewer off before leaving with Byrd alone.

But in a jail note written to Brewer, he said he didn’t think his clothes police took from their apartment had blood on them, but his sandals may have had a “dark brown substance” on them.

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From The Texas Tribune

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