John William King, ringleader in James Byrd Jr. dragging death, executed

By JUAN A. LOZANO and MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press, Sophia Beausoleil - Reporter

HUNTSVILLE, Texas - An avowed racist who orchestrated one of the most gruesome hate crimes in U.S. history was executed Wednesday in Texas for the dragging death of a black man.

John William King, who was white, received lethal injection for the slaying nearly 21 years ago of James Byrd Jr., who was chained to the back of a truck and dragged for nearly 3 miles (5 kilometers) along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper, Texas. The 49-year-old Byrd was alive for at least 2 miles (3 kilometers) before his body was ripped to pieces in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998.

Prosecutors said Byrd was targeted because he was black. King was openly racist and had offensive tattoos on his body, including one of a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree, according to authorities.

King, 44, was put to death at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. He was the fourth inmate executed this year in the U.S. and the third in Texas, the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

Jeremy Desel, the communications director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said King ate his final meal at 4 p.m. which consisted of the same food other inmates eat.  The only difference was that he received a lunch and dinner serving. 

At 6:56 p.m., the order was given to proceed with the lethal injection.  Desel said the warden asked King if he had any final words, but King didn’t say much. 

“He responded simply with the words, ‘no,’ did not open his eyes at any point during the process, took one deep breath, one exhale and that was the extent."  

King was pronounced dead at 7:08 p.m. 

Inside, three family members of Byrd Jr., two sisters and a niece, witnessed the execution. 

"Today, we witnessed the peaceful and dignified execution of John King for the savage, brutal and inhumane murder of James on June 7, 1998 -- really, a modern-day lynching,” said Clara Byrd Taylor, Byrd's older sister.  “I think till the very end, (King) showed his attitude toward James and the family, he didn’t look at us, he showed no sign of remorse and remained with his eyes closed the entire time like an act of defiance.” 

Taylor said she felt, nothing while witnessing the execution and had, “no sense of relieve,”  but was, “just happy this moment was over with and that this part of the challenge was over, and we can move on to the next phase.” 

She said the term "forgiveness" is a word used differently by people and said she thinks of it as letting go of resentment that otherwise paralyzes a person. But, “as far as accepting what he has done? No, we have not done that.” 

“'Closure' is a word that’s difficult to define. For many people, it’s like a wound that you have is healed  but the scar always remains, the scar of James will always be on us, but it’s not paralyzing us, we’re moving forward with activities and things the foundation is doing to bring better conditions,” said Taylor. 

She said she wants her brother’s legacy to continue to be one of peace and nonviolence.  She said as a result of his death, laws have been passed to recognize hate crimes. 

“Laws cannot change the heart of man. We continue to look to God for a permanent solution, but meanwhile encourage everyone to continue to get to know one another on a personal level, especially those of a different race or ethnic group,” said Taylor. 

The killing of Byrd was a hate crime that put a national spotlight on Jasper, a town of about 7,600 residents near the Texas-Louisiana border that was branded with a racist stigma it has tried to shake off ever since. Local officials say the reputation is undeserved.

King's appellate lawyers had tried to stop his execution, arguing King's constitutional rights were violated because his trial attorneys didn't present his claims of innocence and conceded his guilt.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected King's last-minute appeal.

"From the time of indictment through his trial, Mr. King maintained his absolute innocence, claiming that he had left his co-defendants and Mr. Byrd sometime prior to his death and was not present at the scene of his murder. Mr. King repeatedly expressed to defense counsel that he wanted to present his innocence claim at trial," A. Richard Ellis, one of King's attorneys, wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also turned down King's request for either a commutation of his sentence or a 120-day reprieve.

Over the years, King had also suggested the brutal slaying was not a hate crime, but a drug deal gone bad involving his co-defendants.

King, who grew up in Jasper and was known as "Bill," was the second man executed for Byrd's killing. Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in 2011. The third participant, Shawn Allen Berry, was sentenced to life in prison.

King declined an interview request from The Associated Press in the weeks leading up to his execution.

In a 2001 interview with the AP, King said he was an "avowed racist" but wasn't "a hate-monger murderer."

Louvon Byrd Harris, one of Byrd's sisters, said King's execution sent a "message to the world that when you do something horrible like that, that you have to pay the high penalty."

Compared to "all the suffering" her brother suffered before his death, Harris said King and Brewer got "an easy way out."

Billy Rowles, who led the investigation into Byrd's death when he was sheriff in Jasper County, said after King was taken to death row in 1999, he offered to detail the crime as soon as his co-defendants were convicted. When Rowles returned, all King would say was, "I wasn't there."

"He played us like a fiddle, getting us to go over there and thinking we're going to get the rest of the story," said Rowles, who now is sheriff of Newton County.

A week before Brewer was executed in 2011, Rowles said he visited Brewer, who confirmed "the whole thing was Bill King's idea."

Mylinda Byrd Washington, another of Byrd's sisters, said she and her family will work through the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing to ensure her brother's death continues to combat hate everywhere.

"I hope people remember him not as a hate crime statistic. This was a real person. A family man, a father, a brother and a son," she said.

As far as King’s body, TDCJ said it will be released to an unknown funeral home where a person, who was listed on King’s visitation list, has permission to claim the remains.  

If his remains are not claimed, he’ll be buried at the TDCJ cemetery.  

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