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Killer of James Byrd Set to Be Executed This Week

Ellen McGirt

The ringleader behind the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., one of the grisliest hate crimes of the modern era, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday.

John William King, 44, will be the second and final person to be executed in the case. Lawrence Brewer was executed in 2011. A third participant, Shawn Berry, is currently serving a life sentence.

The execution will become another chapter in a story that has kept the small community of Jasper, Texas in a seemingly inescapable crucible of race, hate, and history.

In the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1998, King lured Byrd toward Berry’s truck with the promise of a ride. Instead, they beat him and chained him to the back of a truck. Brewer lowered the victim’s pants. The trio dragged the man for nearly 3 miles along a secluded and wooded road. Byrd was alive for at least two miles until his body ripped apart.

While the crime shocked the nation, it also shocked Jasper.

The city, with a population of about 8,800 at the time, had considered itself on the progressive side as these things go. They had an African American mayor and other black representation in local government and the business community. The white community were evolving on the subject of race and considered the kind of hate that festered in the hearts of King and Brewer a relic of a long-ago age.

“They’d been in prison, out of touch with the real world,” said one spokesperson at the time. “They had in their head that the law here was like it was fifty years ago and that there was not going to be a vigorous search for a killer of a black man.”

This is part of the painful reckoning you’ll find in Two Towns of Jasper, an extraordinary documentary that explored life inside the crucible that had been made visible by Byrd’s murder. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The 2002 film was co-produced and co-directed by two filmmakers and longtime friends, Marco Williams who is black and Whitney Dow who is white. The filming occurred during all three trials but relied heavily on the story of Shawn Berry, who was the last to be sentenced.

Berry was somewhat of a mystery to the community.

King, had been shuttled in and out of prison for petty robberies starting as a teen. Like Brewer, he emerged from prison a bona fide monster. Unlike the other two, Berry had no known white supremacist leanings and had claimed to be a bystander to the crime.

To many white folks, Berry seemed, well, like one of them. In some cases, uncomfortably so.

Williams and Dow decided on an unusual approach. Williams took an all-black film crew and spent time with the black residents of Jasper, and Dow took an all-white crew and filmed the white community. The self-segregation created an environment where people began to feel comfortable thinking out loud about race in ways that both reflected life in Jasper and the broader issues playing out in the South and beyond.

White patriarchs held long, untroubled dinner-table discussions about how using the n-word was no big deal. Byrd’s family was forced to reckon with the narrative that James, with an unnamed troubled past, was not a sympathetic victim. Closeted whites supremacists reflected on their private views. Black hair stylists became de facto community organizers. Everyone worried if the murder was a sign of more trouble to come.

“If you watch the film, not everybody comes off really well,” says Dow of the white characters he filmed. “The white community are not the heroes of the film.” The biggest complaint Dow got was a simple one: That he may have captured the things that people really feel about race, “But I just wish you didn’t have me saying them.” Williams said that some black characters felt exposed for different reasons. “Oops, now the white people are going to know how I really feel…what will happen?”

One answer came after the filmmakers captured a grim realization: The town cemetery was segregated by race, and Byrd is laid to rest in the black-only section. It was something that nobody in town, black or white, seemed to notice anymore. In a moment of grace, the town decided to remove the fence that kept the two cemeteries of Jasper apart.

Today, Jasper continues to address its many fences.

For many, race tensions have heightened. There hasn’t been a black mayor since Byrd died, although viable candidates are coming forward. Byrd’s family still dreams of building a multicultural and diversity education center in the city.

And the story of the murder continues to bedevil attempts to attract employers to town.

To their enduring credit, the Jasper Economic Development Corporation (JEDCO) does not shy away from the topic on their promotional materials. “Late in the last century, the heinous murder of Jasper’s citizen James Byrd Jr. led to the passage of both state and federal hate crime laws.”

It’s an important legacy. President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law on Oct. 28, 2009. As of last summer, the U.S. Justice Department has used the Shepard/Byrd law to indict 88 defendants in 42 hate crimes cases, with 64 convictions to date.

For now, Jasper waits. And, after King is executed, he will be buried in a plot some 100 yards away from the man he murdered, now a neighbor once again.

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  • Quote

    We really don’t know how serious a problem hate crimes of any kind are because we don’t have good data. —Heidi Beirich, Southern Poverty Law Center